As the Presidential Innovation Fellows program seeks the next class of talented technologists, the most recent group looks back on the experience.
The Presidential Innovation Fellowship's MyUSA team. Pictured, from left: Kara DeFrias, Ben Balter, Phil Ashlock, Danny Chapman and Greg Gershman.
On a cold, drizzly evening in the District's Northwest quadrant, several federal technologists gathered at the Hill Country Barbecue Market to talk about their work. For the past six months, these individuals had worked together to craft tech-driven solutions for some of the government's key challenges, and this gathering was to celebrate their efforts.
Three months after the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program was announced, 18 innovators arrived in Washington from across the country. These individuals had beat out roughly 700 applicants for their spots in the program. Paired with other innovators in government, they engaged in a six-month sprint to craft technology that could benefit the public, save taxpayer dollars and help create new jobs.
The fellows were separated into teams based on their skills and backgrounds: Blue Button for America, RFP-EZ, MyGov (later renamed MyUSA), Better Than Cash and Open Data Initiatives.
"Everyone was in the program because they wanted to make a difference," said Benjamin Balter, a software developer and open-gov evangelist who was on the MyUSA team. "The amount of passion was just overwhelming."
This was not the first government experience for Balter. As a fellow in the Office of the U.S. CIO in the Executive Office of the President, the 26-year-old had played a key role in drafting the Digital Government Strategy. Balter also served on the White House Software Automation and Technology Team, which helps automate tasks, streamline processes and optimize data formatting.
The PIF program appealed to Balter because of the opportunity to work with some of the country’s brightest minds. For example, before he joined the Open Data Initiatives team, Navy veteran Ian Kalin's "last job was to drive a nuclear submarine," Balter said. "He turned down a full ride to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to be a fellow. Those are the kinds of sacrifices people made. They uprooted entire families to come to D.C."
Project MyUSA set out to develop a prototype of a streamlined online system that gives people easy access to governmentwide information and services. In addition to Balter, the team consisted of Kara DeFrias, Phil Ashlock, Danny Chapman and Greg Gershman.
The team’s task was to "reimagine the relationship between the government and people." In their first week together, the MyUSA team members sat down with U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel to figure out what success really meant.
"I think it was Todd who said that success six months down the line was just to come up with a prototype," Balter said. "We would have a proof of concept that would address a specific issue."
In federal IT, creating a proof of concept is a common approach and often sets the foundation for a bigger implementation. When the six-month deadline came around, the MyUSA team not only had a proof of concept but four distinct working deliverables that became the MyUSA product line: Discovery Bar, Account, Apps and Forms.
The Discovery Bar features tools and application programming interfaces for connecting the government’s many websites. The bar can be integrated into agency websites to help people find services and information pertinent to their interests and needs -- along the lines of the way Amazon shows customers other products that might be relevant based on their previous purchases.
An individual’s MyUSA Account, meanwhile, acts as a single access point to government services by providing basic tools through which he or she can interact with agencies. Individuals control access to their personal information and can use their account to receive notifications, track and manage tasks, and access previously submitted forms. With MyUSA Apps, users give apps permission to access their basic profile information. Government agencies can build interactions and workflows for common transactions while forging a relationship between them and the public. And MyUSA Forms smooths the way for users to conduct transactions with the government by making it easier for agencies to create online forms to collect and securely store information from the public. With the help of an API, agencies can integrate form submissions with their back-end systems.
Those accomplishments did not come without challenges, however. Balter noted, for example, that although anyone in a private-sector company "can go and spin up servers on Amazon or something like that, we had to make sure it complied with [Federal Information Security Management Act] regulations and check off all those boxes."
The real hurdles, however, were cultural. Balter said his initial thought was that most IT problems in government were due to technology, but he soon realized that was not the case.
"Never in the fellowship did we ever say, 'Man, I have no idea how the heck to do this. This is impossible, and nothing like this has never been done before, '" Balter said. "It was all very basic technologies that were very common in the private sector and elsewhere."
Those experiences gave Balter the chance to address some of the flawed IT in government. Whether it is an imperfect website or a subpar technology, "these kinds of suboptimal interactions are like nails on a chalkboard," Balter said. "It drives me crazy, and I just want to fix it."
And while being part of a successful project is rewarding in itself, the MyUSA team also got some feedback that few federal employees enjoy. As the project was nearing its end, the team was given 30 minutes with President Barack Obama in the Roosevelt Room. What could have been a typical photo opportunity instead turned into the president "asking substantive questions that showed he was very engaged," Balter said.
"As a developer, it's pretty cool to be able to say, 'I met with the president, and he asked about the code I wrote and my vision for the project,'" he added.
Alan Balutis, senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems' Internet Business Solutions Group, said programs like PIF can help inject fresh perspectives into government challenges instead of drawing ideas from the usual suspects.
"Some of the literature in innovation really suggests that groups work best when you bring people in who are outsiders and look at things in new and different kinds of ways," he said.
And David McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, took issue with skeptics who questioned whether six-month fellowships could make a dent in the status quo. The MyUSA Team, he said, "created a citizen-centric approach that will transform how the public engages with government. While there is still much work to be done, they developed an open, flexible prototype platform that provides the building blocks needed for a better public experience with government."
Although the PIF program is not the way to fix every problem in government, Balutis said, it works well as a catalyst. "If you look at it as a vanguard or an advance party that can really be a force multiplier, I think it can be a big help," he said.
The new class
Just a few days after Balter and the others celebrated their last days as fellows at the barbecue joint, VanRoekel and Park announced that the search was on for the next generation of innovators.
The first class laid the groundwork for five projects, and the second will extend four of those initiatives and launch an additional five projects.
For Balter, however, it is not quite class dismissed yet -- literally. He is graduating from a joint juris doctor and master's degree program at George Washington University this spring. But despite the full-time studies, he does not plan to turn his back on government.
"Without a doubt, my experience really sparked a passion in working with and using technologies to better the government," he said. "I graduate in May, but I don't know exactly what's next."
He paused for a moment and then added: "I'll try my best to help the government serve the people by using some of the technologies the cool kids are using!"
NEXT STORY: Peter Levin to leave VA