This post was originally published on the Digital.gov blog. Brian Whittaker is currently the Chief Innovation Officer at the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission.
Brian Whittaker has long been a champion for representation in government, first as the Deputy Executive Director at the Centers of Excellence, where he managed the recruitment and selection of technologists, and then as Acting Director for 18F, where he managed a diverse workforce and worked on improving equity.
Most recently, Brian served as Director of Design and Development at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and he now serves as the acting Chief Innovation Officer at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
Given Brian’s experience across the federal government at all levels, the U.S. Digital Corps team asked him to share some thoughts about diversity and representation in civic tech as we prepare to onboard our first cohort of Fellows.
—Dahianna Salazar Foreman, Communications Lead, U.S. Digital Corps
Why Civic Tech and Government Leaders Should Care About Diversity and Representation
Diversity and representation is critical in civic tech and government, especially now that digital service delivery is becoming essential for government services to reach the American public. These products and services need to account for the diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and ability of the people using the service; otherwise, it will not have the greatest reach and inequity is bound to occur.
One way to prevent this is to hire diverse talent and, when possible, hire from the communities you are trying to serve to ensure that the experience and needs of these communities are reflected in the product and services.
Not only is diversity and representation through all levels and parts of an organization key to creating and delivering equitable and accessible products and services, but it is also critical to recruiting and retaining talent. A lack of diversity in leadership and management can be seen as a sign that minorities are not seen as leaders and/or are not valued, which could send your diverse talent out the door.
I’ve experienced this personally. Early in my career, I worked at a company in multiple locations and had the opportunity to see leadership and diversity in each region. I was fortunate because, after taking note of the lack of diversity in one region, I moved to another region where I saw diversity not only at the individual contributor level but at all levels of the organization.
Supporting Early-career Technologists in Government
Working with early-career and junior technologists is a complex challenge for managers in the federal government because our field is just starting to build what a career path might look like from entry-level to more senior positions. On top of that, civic tech isn’t necessarily a popular career option for people graduating from college and other tech training programs (yet).
One way agencies and leaders can support their junior technologists is by assuming a continuous-learning mindset and stepping out of their comfort zones to identify mentors, communities, and sources of support for early-career staff.
In a previous agency, I helped stand up an organization that had a communication specialist on the team. However, my background is in computer engineering technology and I didn’t know the first thing about supervising and advising a communications specialist, so I had to take the initiative to identify a mentor for that team member.
Relatedly, in terms of fostering connections, I’m in the process of growing a BIPOC (pronounced as “bye-pock,” this acronym stands for: Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Slack channel for civic technologists that, once we reach a significant number and achieve proper coordination, I hope can be seen as a support system for minority civic technologists. Other resources include broader Slack communities like Black Code Collective and Techqueria that employee resource groups can recommend as additional support to early-career employees as they get their footing in government.
Advice to Students and Recent Graduates Interested in Exploring Civic Tech
My first piece of advice is to ensure that you can take care of the fundamentals—make sure your starting offer can cover the bills, and the organization you are joining will help you grow your technical skills. Government programs like the new U.S. Digital Corps understand this and offer recruitment incentives, a fair starting salary, remote work, and training and mentoring opportunities.
Once you’re in your job, look into the culture and team structure of an organization—find a mentor inside or outside of your organization to help you learn more about the value of multi-disciplinary teams and how they create products. Working together and respecting different expertise is the key to success in any role, especially in government.
Finally, expand your network. Get to know people in government—and not just other technologists—with the intention of learning what they do, what tools they use, the experiences they’ve had, and the hurdles to making change. During my time at GSA, I really enjoyed participating in the Diversity Guild since it was a cross-cutting space for employees of all identities and backgrounds.
These three things should ensure your bills are paid, your skills are sharp, and you will transition into government with your eyes wide open.
We are definitely making progress in ensuring the government is a comfortable place to work for diverse talent, but there are still areas in which we need to grow—including, demystifying the path into government for interested candidates, and building communities to get a sense of the needs of diverse technologists already in government in order to support retention. Leaders across all agencies, myself included, are aware of these needs and working towards making government, especially in tech fields, a great place to work.