Will civic tech save government from its tech talent crisis?

Students drawn to digital government are bringing desperately needed skills (and enthusiasm) to agencies that are willing to engage, Steve Kelman writes.

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Just as government is becoming desperate about where, how, and whether it can recruit young tech talent to replace those who are retiring, a kind of miracle has occurred. Some students have started clamoring for govtech jobs. And these students are not just any old warm bodies. They bring more modern tech skills, including in agile software development, user-centered design and product management, where the government has much too little talent in its legacy workforce.

This movement is part of a larger growth of interest in what is called “civic tech,” a rubric that includes not only government service but also work on behalf of the public good in non-profits and social enterprises. Its latest manifestation is the meteoric appearance on the federal scene this summer of Coding it Forward, an organization founded by Harvard undergrads and students at other schools, which sponsored 36 “civic digital fellowships” in six federal agencies this summer. The work of the organization has been covered in detail by FCW, Government Matters and others, and has lit up the Twittersphere.

This growth has now become an important-enough factor in the govtech ecosystem that it prompted Emily Fong, a New York University senior and 2018 digital fellow at the Census Bureau, to write Entering Civic Tech: A Student’s Guide for Coding it Forward to help civic tech newbies get started. “While students around the country have no shortage of enthusiasm for civic tech, they may not necessarily know how to get started or the network to help them along the way," Fong writes. "That’s why I started assembling these tips on how to start your career in civic tech, with some examples pulled from my own story.”

Her first piece of advice: Don’t just take engineering courses. “If you’re working in the context of a traditional engineering program, try seeing if you can fit humanities and theory classes into your course load," Fong writes. "Having an understanding of how technology can both uplift and oppress marginalized communities won’t necessarily make you a better Java programmer, but it will make you a more empathetic and communicative technologist.”

She continues by noting, “Techies use Twitter.” Following civic tech individuals and organizations on Twitter “is helpful because you get an insight into what the challenges and rewards of working in civic tech look like from someone who’s directly living in that world. Conversely, Twitter is a great way to start building your presence in the civic tech community and could open doors to future in-person interactions and connections.” Fong particularly recommends following Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka and Aaron Snow, formerly of 18F and now director of the Canadian Digital Service. For institutional Twitter sources, she recommends following USDS and 18F, as well as Ad Hoc and Nava, two non-traditional government contractors whom I have discussed in earlier blog posts.

Start local, she suggests. “Attend a social impact hackathon, a local Code for America brigade meeting, or get in touch with your local city government with feedback on the digital tools they’re working with.” Why start local? “You should try to never lose sight of the goal, which is to improve services and experiences for actual people," Fong writes. "Getting started at the local level is an excellent way to keep that in mind.”

Finally, the old-fashioned advice to seek out opportunities proactively and not give up definitely applies here. Fong notes that she landed her fellowship after following up on a Twitter job post from Nava and asking whether they had student internships available. They didn’t, but their director of talent acquisition recommended she seek out Coding it Forward. To attend the Code for America summit, for which he couldn’t afford a ticket, she offered to volunteer as a staffer at the event.

How did we get to this moment where civic tech has become part of our landscape? The basic message that federal managers need to understand is that this is part of an interest by many young people in public service and making the world a better place. Without that spark there would be no civic tech movement -- standard private sector tech jobs pay much more, are easier to find, and have a glamor of their own. So federal managers should embrace the students’ ideals and their idealism.

Institutionally, the pioneer civic tech organization has been Code for America, which was founded in 2010 and opened the path for the civic tech movement. CfA places teams of fellows with local governments across the U.S., and develop some digital programs themselves, such as “Clear my Record,” which helps people with old, low-level criminal records get those expunged. The group also has organized “brigades” in a number of local governments that provide volunteers for digital projects. And it sponsors the largest civic tech event, the Code for America Summit.

The new kid on the block is Coding it Forward, which grew out of a civic tech course at the Harvard Kennedy School taught by one-time Deputy CTO Nick Sinai, started in early 2017 to organize tech internships in government for students, and within a few months was able to put together 14 fellowships at one agency, Census. This summer the program expanded, and next summer almost certainly will be bigger still. Coding it Forward's niche is organizing quality, paid internships with real content for students who want to serve in Washington.

Now federal managers need to step up to the plate to open opportunities for these young people. One might have imagined that maybe government might reject them as a foreign body too strange and different from the government culture. Early returns, however, are promising: Fong told me that one of her big takeaways from the summer at Census was that “so much of government is excited and happy to have technologists helping out.” This last summer, the digital fellows were welcomed to the White House to meet with USDS leadership and to bowl at the White House bowling alley.

Still, there are challenges ahead. The short-term one is navigating the federal job search process for students who actually decide to look to government as they graduate – I fear many will get scared away and end up elsewhere. But even if they do get jobs, they will run into the fact that government does almost no development work in-house. Whether it’s a good idea to invest in developing such capabilities is a question with significance beyond these young people. But the kids who may be knocking at the government’s door provide a good occasion to address it.

NEXT STORY: Mission-driven design thinking

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