Why PIFs Stay in Government

In the fall of 2013, Charles Worthington left consulting behind and joined the government as part of a new initiative by President Barack Obama — a prestigious fellowship for the technology-savvy. It was just supposed to be a brief career interlude.

But today, after five years and a change in presidential administrations, Worthington is still in federal service.

Worthington isn’t the only former Presidential Innovation Fellow who has stayed in government. More than a third of the program’s participants have stuck around after the fellowship ended, some rising to executive-level positions within agencies. They stay because they’re empowered, because their skills are in demand, because they’re quietly but strongly patriotic or because a year just isn’t enough time to see the full fruits of one’s labor.

The net effect is that the program — now six years in the running — has not only altered how the federal government approaches hiring tech talent, but also indelibly changed career trajectories of each fellow.

Uncommon opportunity

A Presidential Innovation Fellowship isn’t meant to be a long-term career move.

The program, launched in 2012, was the first of Obama’s signature tech workforce initiatives. The idea is simple: Give talented tech workers a chance to give back by joining the government for a discrete period of time, to work on a discrete project. Call it a “tour of duty” or sell it as a sabbatical — afterward the fellows return to the private sector, with both sides having gained something in the exchange. PIFs, as they’re called, are employed on one-year contracts with the possibility of one additional yearlong extension, if both the host agency and the PIF agree.

Over the years, 122 technologists — developers, designers and entrepreneurs — have chosen to lay down their private sector work and heed the call of public service. Many have returned to the private sector. But for some, a year or two isn’t enough.

One such former PIF is Ben Willman. As acting director of the PIF program at the General Services Administration, he now helps organize the program that brought him into the government in the first place. 

About 46 of the 122 PIFs have stayed on and been directly hired by an agency, Willman told FedScoop in an interview. But for Willman personally, staying in government wasn’t exactly part of the plan.

As part of the PIF class of 2013, Willman worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs on IT modernization. It was his first experience working in the government. As the fellowship drew to a close, he chose to join a group of PIFs from that class who went on to found the IT consulting group 18F at GSA.

“I felt there was tremendous opportunity,” Willman told FedScoop. “It was exciting.”

And PIFs do, in various ways, have a unique opportunity. The fellowship affords participants certain elevated rank and level of access. Fellows qualify as step one of GS-15 on the federal pay scale — just one step below Senior Executive Service.

PIFs have meetings with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill and report to top executives at agencies. They might even turn around to find a sitting U.S. CTO singing them happy birthday. That kind of access affects not only the work they can do, but also the value they feel.

Recognizable need

The initial failure of Healthcare.gov and its subsequent rescue — now trotted out ad nauseam as an example of the government’s need for more tech talent — provided one reason for PIFs to stick around in the early days of the fellowship program. But that saga also, some would argue, made for lasting culture change.

For Worthington, who was a few months into his fellowship at the time of the ill-fated website launch, it was a turning point because of how it ended up empowering the existing government technology community. It “changed the conversation about the role of technology in the delivery of public services, and provided a lot of momentum to people inside government who had been arguing that the status quo needed to change,” Worthington told FedScoop. For those who’d been saying things needed to be done differently, the moment was too big to ignore.

“Now, there was a highly visible proof point about the risk of a ‘business as usual’ approach to IT,” he added.

Worthington moved over to the office of the federal CTO, where deputy CTO Jen Pahlka was working on a Healthcare.gov post-mortem. There he co-authored the Digital Services Playbook and helped launch the U.S. Digital Service office, another group that utilizes the “tour of duty” hiring scheme and has also been known to hook people for longer than initially planned. After working at USDS, he’s now the chief technology officer at the VA.

A place for patriotism

Jeff Meisel, class of 2014, saw the PIF program as a way to seize an opportunity that had long interested him. “I had always wanted to do a stint in public service, but didn’t know how,” he told FedScoop in an email. “I learned the program was recruiting agile-minded product and business managers, which was my background, and it sounded like a great way to be get out of my comfort zone and make an impact at scale for our country.”

That kind of quiet patriotism undergirds a lot of what former PIFs have to say about their time in the program, and what compelled them to stick around.

Sarah Brooks (class of 2014), who went on to become the VA’s first chief design officer, says she stayed on because of her agency’s “meaningful mission.”

“Every day was difficult and full of obstacles to overcome, but in aggregate it was the most satisfying work I’ve ever done,” she told FedScoop. Brooks left the VA at the change in administration.

Another former PIF now out of government expressed the appeal of tech-as-public-service in a particularly succinct and memorable way. “It represented an opportunity to do something for my country that didn’t involve shooting guns or kissing babies,” Ross Dakin, class of 2015, said of his fellowship experience while at an event last summer.

Claiming more time

PIFs tend to be the kind of people who finish what they start, and one year is a blip in the federal government timeline, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that time plays a big role in whether fellows stick around.

“I saw firsthand how much work needed to be done to transform digital capabilities within agencies,” Meisel said of his fellowship year. “I felt like I only scratched the surface in my year as a PIF, and I wanted to leave my portfolio at Census — APIs, open source, and developer outreach — better than I found it. It was going to take more time than just 12 months.”

Tyrone Grandison, who is now completing an Eisenhower Fellowship in China, also stayed on after his PIF year out of a sense of some unfinished business.

Grandison worked at the Department of Labor and Census Bureau during his fellowship, and afterward he became deputy chief data officer at the Department of Commerce, helping build the Commerce Data Academy.

“I wanted to see the DOL and Census Bureau projects to success, while enabling innovation from and for the Commerce employees,” Grandison told FedScoop. “I decided to stay because a year is not long enough to see the effects of impact.”

While those motivated alumni continue working in and around Washington, the PIF program itself continues under President Donald Trump. At the fellowship’s headquarters at GSA, Willman and team are wrapping up recruitment for the fall 2018 cohort.

“The demand is as strong as ever,” Willman told FedScoop. “You can make a difference.”

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Katie Easton