On July 30, 2022 the fifth cohort of Public Interest Entrepreneurs hosted an event to present ten months worth of work within the French administration. Their goal in a nutshell? Digital transformation that helps public servants to bring better public service to citizens. Every year, our public tech fellowship recruits a cohort to work on specific problems encountered by civil servants and build tools that change their daily routine for the better. While this year’s event focused on the products that were built and the change induced, this article reflects the importance of recruiting the right people for the job. It is based on an international panel that took place during last year’s event.
Since 2012 and the creation of Presidential Innovation Fellows in the US, many other public tech fellowships have been launched. On June the 17th, 2021, Public Interest Entrepreneurs brought together an international panel representing four of them to sit down and reflect (online):
- John Paul Farmer, co-founder of Presidential Innovation Fellows, at the time of the panel Chief Technology Officer, New York City, USA
- Jen Gold, for N°10 Innovation Fellowship, at the time of the panel Head of Evidence and Evaluation, Cabinet Office, UK
- Anna Hupperth, for Tech4Germany & Work4Germany, Head of Communications, Germany
- Laure Lucchesi, for Public Interest Entrepreneurs, Director, Etalab, France
- Soizic Pénicaud, at the time of the panel Head of Community and Capacity Building and Head of the Public Interest Entrepreneurs fellowship, Etalab (moderator)
How do these fellowships contribute to digital transformation in their respective governments? What are the benefits and the limitations of such programs? Dive in with us!
Why the fellowships?
Fellowships are a way of bringing tech talent into government in order to build projects and capacity.
Governmental needs meet civic enthusiasm
Public tech fellowships are a meeting point for governments that want to innovate and citizens that want to contribute to the greater good.
The Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) started with an observation by the Obama administration: “the best solutions came when you had a diverse team. And a diverse team meant you had people with twenty first century skills: […] Web developers who understood data and how to use it in addition to lawyers and people with deep policy expertise,” remembers John Paul Farmer. In 2012, to recreate this framework, the White House launched a trial fellowship to bring in tech talents who would work on 5 specific projects. It was overwhelmingly successful: in just 3 weeks, it received over 700 applications for 18 spots.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Tech4Germany (T4G) was launched in 2018 by a group of young professionals outside of government: they noticed that students were interested in working for the government and applying their skills to government projects, but couldn’t find a suitable framework for it. One of the problems being that jobs in government often didn’t cover the skills that were needed for modern software development.
Building projects… and building capacity
The first benefit of such fellowships is to build projects faster and better. Calls for applications within administrations help to select projects that are impactful and feasible in a short amount of time. Since 2016, Public Interest Entrepreneurs (EIG) has jump-started 87 projects. For instance, Réfugiés.info, the Wikipedia of information for refugees in France, was launched after only 10 months of work. Another example in the USA: the PIF played an essential role in quickly fixing the healthcare.gov platform when it crashed on the day of its opening.
But, as Laure Lucchesi underlines, fellowships are after “not only a change of working methods, but also a change of culture.” Whilst in government, fellows implement new ways of working, question traditional behaviours, exemplify what tech skills can bring to projects, and even upskill civil servants. Embedded into government, fellows work hand in hand with them, transforming government from within.
Lastly, fellowships aim at bringing people into government for the long term. Jen Gold from the UK explained that, because “it was so important to have people stay on in government and have that leadership pipeline, we wanted them employed as civil servants”. That’s why they launched the N°10 Innovation Fellowships (N°10) in 2020, motivated by the 50% of fellows retained by PIF, the Impact Canada Fellowships and EIG.
Who do we bring in?
Panelists shared similar challenges when it came to recruitment.
Diversity: still a major issue
The four fellowships attract different types of people. PIF mobilizes people from big tech companies and receives many applicants from the private sector. T4G was initially a student initiative and is still aimed at younger people to give them an experience of working in government and the wish to stay on. N°10 and EIG are in the middle ground.
However, the four fellowships have made diversity a priority: they consider it their duty to carefully choose the people who bring about digital transformation. “I think it’s one of the things that fellowship programs […] should also really stand out for, because that’s another mindset change that we can drive, next to bringing tech, design, et cetera, into government,” says Anna Hupperth.
Therefore, they seek to bake diversity into the programs. For example, N°10 has included assessing for a commitment to diversity and inclusion within the recruitment process for the fellows. It has also undertaken proactive outreach in tech networks to bring underrepresented groups into government via the program.
Wanted: tech talent with soft skills
One of the major challenges the fellows come across is understanding the working of complex structures to get things done. They might also encounter some resistance to change. That’s why recruiting for the fellowships can be hard: one must find people who combine technology expertise and soft skills such as empathy, understanding, adaptability, curiosity, creativity… All of this in order for them to be able to learn from the civil servants they’ll be working with and move the projects forward. And with the help of the programs that offer tailored inductions for Fellows to bridge gaps between work cultures.
How do we make the transformation sustainable?
Fellowships help jump-start projects and initiate change. The real challenge is to make that change sustainable.
Fellowships and national digital services
Fellowships and digital services go hand in hand and both need to exist in order to keep building tech capacity within governments.
Interestingly enough, PIF and T4G led to the creation of national digital services, while the French and UK digital services felt the need to launch fellowship programs to attract diverse talent. “In addition [to the Presidential Innovation Fellowship], 18 F and the US Digital Service were created so that we would have permanent institutional capability in addition to the fellows,” says John Paul Farmer. Anna Hupperth elaborated on the recent creation of the German digital service DigitalService4Germany: “by being inside the government, but also still a little bit outside, we are on the sweet spot where we can actually talk across all hierarchies and move things forward.”
Furthermore, programs often evolve in order to better meet their goals. Laure Lucchesi explains: “We learn by iterations. From the first cohort until the one that we are about to launch today, we improved the program year after year by integrating various skills. Not only data scientists and developers, but also designers and lawyers.”
Citizens and co
Digital transformation isn’t led only by public tech fellowships. Civic tech initiatives and private fellowships can also contribute to a better public service.
Laure Lucchesi insisted that EIG was also inspired by civic tech initiatives, be it citizens with personal projects or actual civic tech programs. The international “Code For” network or the WirVSvirus hackathon are great examples of civic initiatives that spark many projects and vocations around the world. Apart from being an inspiration, such initiatives could be integrated more into the fellowships, although it has yet to be figured out how.
As for companies playing their part, John Paul Farmer explained that New York City greatly relied on them during the Covid crisis. Because the situation was critical, the city set up a volunteer fellowship to enable people to put their skills to use. 7300 people have volunteered to this day.
The main benefits of public tech fellowships are helping to build a pipeline of tech talents into governments, building capacity within governments and bringing about a change of culture. All of these contribute to the digital transformation of administrations to improve public services.
However, for all they’re worth, digital fellowships are not a one-size-fits-all solution. As they grow and multiply, they raise questions: how do we ensure that the recruitment process is both efficient and inclusive? How do we prevent fellowships from being temporary “tours of duty” and make them into real levers for capacity building? How do we make sure that public servants also gain from this experience? And how do we guarantee that fellowships actually contribute to improving public services?
We whole-heartedly thank all the panelists for taking part in this discussion.
This international panel was a way to start the conversation, and we would very much like to keep it going. Do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org