Federal fellows take an unwanted break

The government shutdown has young innovators eager to get back to work.

compass innovation

Lily Bradley is not one for idle time. She received her MBA from Harvard Business School, founded and ran her own consulting firm and provided sophisticated analysis related to health care and economics for a variety of enterprises.

Bradley's success in the private sector landed her an innovation fellowship at the Department of Health and Human Services, where she has worked on open-data projects since February.

Since Oct. 1, however, she has been benched.

"It's disheartening that the government has been shut down,” Bradley said. “I don't feel like I am being given the opportunity to serve in the way that I was brought on to. This hasn't happened in 17 years, so I'm hopeful it's not indicative of the environment going forward."

Bradley is just one of the many federal fellows, including the approximately 50 Presidential Innovation Fellows, who have been relegated to inactivity because of the partial government shutdown.

"When I start to think about the work, I get a little bit upset I think because I like want to keep working on it but we've been told that they're going to do an audit and we'll get in trouble if we're caught having done work during the furlough,” she said.

Lily Bradley

Lily Bradley has volunteered at a school while waiting out the shutdown.

Bradley has volunteered at a school as part of her effort to keep busy, but she has to stay clear of anything that might even appear to be a conflict of interest related to her work, a norm for the federal workforce.

"I was brought into this position to work on this intersection of policy and business to improve health care. The focus has been on opening data and supporting entrepreneurial work that will use data innovatively to solve problems,” she said, although she could not be more specific because they have yet to be announced to the public.

Dave Caraway is a presidential innovation fellow working for data.gov. Caraway has also been furloughed, though he is confident the shutdown will not have long-term ramifications for fellows.

"Short term of course, my observation has been with our program and probably with many other programs, whenever you stop something that's in [progress], it's going to take a little bit more to get it going again," said Caraway, the founder of software services company Fogmine and a one-time Lockheed engineer.

Caraway is helping develop improved search tools and data visualizations for the next iteration of data.gov. Even though his specific goals probably won’t be affected by the shutdown, Caraway said the data catalogues that agencies are supposed to release in November as part of President Barack Obama’s open-data initiative might be delayed.

"Most of my goals involve getting a certain number of things accomplished and I think they've been accomplished to date,” he said. Caraway’s fellowship ends in December.

Bradley hasn’t been quite so lucky.

"There will be internal deadlines that will pass and given that the people I'm working with to whom I owe that work, that they are also on furlough status, I think people will be understanding," she said.

Bradley said that even though in hindsight she thinks she would still have accepted her two-year fellowship, she has been wondering over the past few days if she should’ve taken an offer in the private sector.

"I really want to make the country a better place. I really want to improve health care and I feel like I'm not allowed to do that at all until they open up the government again," she said.

Bradley said that after her fellowship, which ends in 2015, she could see taking a break from the public sector before returning at some point in the future.

"I think that the American people deserve better,” Bradley said. “I think there's a lot of really great talent right now sitting on the sidelines and it would be nice if we could all get back to delivering services to the American people and writing good policy and taking care of the most vulnerable populations."

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