This post was originally published on the Digital.gov blog.
In June 2022, 38 technologists started as the inaugural cohort of the U.S. Digital Corps. Our two-year fellowship has given us an incredible introduction to civil service, opportunities for professional growth, and a supportive community of peers. As we crossed our one-year mark, we reflected on what we’ve learned about serving as a technologist in the federal government. Here’s what some of us had to say.
Kira Tebbe, Product Manager
I have been consistently blown away by how many fascinating projects are ongoing or getting started in the federal government. Did you know there’s a $16 million pilot to distribute diapers to low-income families? In addition to a pilot of newborn supply kits? Or what about a text message service to better guide the public through the benefits enrollment and renewal process? How about the Fair Housing Testing Program, which sends folks undercover as prospective renters to test if there is any housing discrimination? Or that there’s a centralized government call center, which can guide you to the correct office for any question you may have?
Not only are these teams and projects amazing, but the people working on them are incredibly generous and passionate. I’ve been so grateful to learn from the people directly involved in these initiatives, who have been surprisingly receptive to a cold email from a curious new federal employee. I am excited to continue learning as much as I can!
Samira Sadat, Software Engineer
One thing that has become evident in my government experience is that creating efficient processes internally translates to a better user experience for the American people. When people visit a website, the first thing they notice is the content and how it looks. In reality, the experience a user has on a website is shaped by much more than what they see: security, policy, design, front-end and back-end development, content strategy, and other areas of expertise happening behind the scenes.
For the last year, I have worked on the vote.gov team as a software developer, and I have used my skills to help implement a content management system that other team members (who are not developers) can easily use to manage the site. Even though the public can’t see this interface, it allows writers to quickly deploy voting information the public needs without a technical bottleneck.
In the past, I often felt that as a software engineer, my work did not have the direct social impact on people that I wished to have. But my work this past year shows not only that I can, but that software talent is crucial for the delivery of many programs across the government.
Pierce Lowary, Cybersecurity Specialist
One of the priceless aspects of public service is the opportunity to work on problems, meet smiling faces, and go places that you wouldn’t if you were working in the private sector. Working with the State Department, I have been fortunate to be able to travel to several of America’s 270-plus diplomatic missions around the world, from an embassy in West Africa to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels. But the most impactful aspect of these journeys has been meeting the staff at each post — the heart of American diplomacy. Whether domestically or overseas, I have consistently been humbled by the extraordinary dedication and spirit of those who make our foreign policy tick―including the tremendous technology infrastructure and innovation that’s required to do so.
Securing all that infrastructure is no simple task. Take medical devices as an example. They are necessities for many employees, and innovations like wireless monitoring can save lives, but these devices can also pose risks to sensitive information unless we secure them. No one disputes the need to keep our secrets safe. But our people are our hope for a better future, and we have the duty and obligation to help those in need. One of our key challenges ― and key opportunities ― is to ask, “How might we?”
How might we uphold both security and inclusivity? How might we protect what’s vulnerable while ensuring our employees, who are the best in the world at what they do, are free to do that well? How might we bring in the allies and partners that make us stronger? And how might we ensure this extends to every single level of our department, which is a massive organization of organizations of organizations?
These are difficult questions to answer, but I hope that reading more about my experience can inspire folks like you to join us and help tackle them!
Sahithi N. Adari, Data Scientist
What many people don’t realize, and what I didn’t fully understand before starting the fellowship, is the sheer amount of data and information that the government has that is publicly available. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) collects and maintains human capital data for past and current federal employees, retirees, and job applicants. Many federal workforce data points, including age, length of service, work schedule, and location, are available in an aggregate form on OPM’s public website in a data tool called FedScope.
If this information is allowed to be shared publicly, then how should we best present the data? Who is the audience? What privacy considerations need to be taken into account? Should there be a dashboard? Has this analysis been done before? Who are we building for? Have they been included in the process?
For the last year, I have been tackling these particular questions in developing internal tools and public-facing dashboards, working on research projects alongside employees of multiple federal agencies, and supporting the President’s Management Agenda Priority 1 goal of strengthening and empowering the federal workforce.
While I don’t have clean answers to the above, ultimately, what I did discover is that federal work is inclusive and collaborative. As the popular adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Or, in my case, it takes the help, support, time, and kindness of many federal employees to publish one meaningful dashboard.
Jay Shao, Cybersecurity Specialist
As a U.S. Digital Corps Fellow at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), I support the engineering team developing a security data analytics platform known as the Security Data Lake. Beyond the technical challenges, a critical part of our work involves building bridges with other teams throughout the agency. In my role, I help develop working relationships and facilitate cross-functional collaboration necessary to drive the project forward. For example, when we integrate a data feed into the platform, we must work with different stakeholder groups who own the data, some who maintain the infrastructure storing the data, and others who will consume the data. Each of these stakeholders operates according to their own priorities, manages their own limited resources, and answers to their own respective stakeholders. With this in mind, our team’s success on any given effort often depends on our ability to navigate the complex web of relationships with empathy, tact, and situational awareness.
Nina Anusavice, UX Researcher and Designer
In the last year, I have worked as a U.S. Digital Corps Fellow in the UX design track at VA’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. I initially worked on a project that will inform veterans of their PACT Act benefits and how to apply for them. Currently, I am researching what information would be most helpful for a veteran patient to see in their after-visit summary. The summary will be electronically available on the My HealtheVet patient portal. This work will have far-reaching implications for how veterans manage their health care, and is part of VA’s overall Digital Health Modernization strategy.
Every now and then, I find myself in awe of having the opportunity to contribute so much to work that will ultimately affect veterans and their family members’ healthcare and benefits. I cannot think of a more meaningful and profound mission that I could be involved in. I am honored and humbled to be in the first cohort of the U.S. Digital Corps.
Karley Thurston, Product Manager
It’s been so exciting to become a part of the civic tech world and work alongside the people revolutionizing public service delivery. One thing that has really stood out for me has been the way that the past and present come together to further innovation. A common piece of advice we’ve gotten has been that if you have an obvious idea, find the person who tried it before and figure out why it didn’t happen. Every project faces unique technology and policy barriers — there is often an excellent “bureaucracy hacking” story in the background and I have learned a ton from those conversations.
A lot of government tech development is the story of combining new processes with legacy systems; sometimes this is due to the cost and challenges of an overhaul, but there are many cases where new and old need to co-exist to make sure all needs get met (think of the equity issues of going cash-free, for example). Similarly, I’ve been lucky to work on a relatively new tool that provides Medicare claims data quickly and in an industry-standard sharing format. But providers, insurers, and researchers have distinct use cases for the data and each has their own level of technical maturity, so we are adding new functionality while still allowing manual file downloads and other options for users to get the much-needed care data where it needs to go. I’m excited to keep making this ecosystem more robust during this fellowship.
Jonathan Hart, Data Scientist
Coming in, I didn’t fully appreciate the depth of the civic technology community. While the mission of every agency is unique, the technology challenges that they face are often shared. During the past year at the Center for Analytics at the Department of State, I have worked on quite a few challenges and helped to deliver data to our diplomats around the world.
It might not appear that there would be much in common between the missions of the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation, United States Agency for International Development, and Office of Management and Budget, but technologists from each agency have helped me to understand these shared challenges. Being a U.S. Digital Corps Fellow at GSA has allowed me to build meaningful bridges between my office and similar offices throughout the federal government. I am thankful for the many interactions I have had with the Presidential Innovation Fellows and those who I’ve met through meetings hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. These interagency connections help in tackling the big problems—like challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence in government, or how to approach the Authority to Operate process. The advice and guidance that I have received has been priceless and I hope that I am able to pay it forward to those who will come after.
Liane Peng, Service Designer
Over the past year, I’ve learned that human-centered design and human services organizations both put people and empathy toward lived experience at their core. In this way, interviews and participatory methods are a natural fit. During the discovery phase, stories flow and stakeholders become eager collaborators and champions. The challenge, though, is creating consensus and defining solutions when there are so many ethical considerations, competing needs, and diverse populations with highly specific needs.
Scaling products and services across a patchwork network of programs also involves far more change management and coordination than I’ve ever seen in other digital service teams. I’ve loved working through it to streamline processes and write procedures, and seeing my colleagues in other departments doing the same. Design isn’t the sole domain of technology, anyways; there’s so much to learn from people already advocating for accessibility, safety, and trauma-informed care in policy and operations. Overall, challenges in the federal government are complex, and the impacts huge. For me, the inherent worth of the work is its own source of satisfaction, and I feel a sense of responsibility and privilege in a role that I’m lucky to have.
Chizobam Nwagwu, Product Manager
In my first year as a U.S. Digital Corps Fellow, I learned so much about what it means to deliver digital products that benefit the public. While at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), I appreciated the opportunity to contribute as a product manager for FindSupport.gov in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It was a privilege to learn from people who experienced behavioral health issues or provide support on how this product could help them and their communities. This hands-on experience affirmed that centering user experiences is important for guiding product development and implementation — especially given the incredible scale on which government impacts the American public.
Outside of building products, I deeply treasure the relationships I built as a member of this cohort and in the larger civic technology community. Through the ups and downs, the Fellows are always eager to lend a helping hand or listening ear. I cherish the growth that I gained by learning from everyone’s diverse and rich life experiences. Their commitment to contributing to their skills to serve the public interest keeps me motivated and inspired.
Anjenica “Nikki” Ramos, Product Designer
For every user wincing at an archaic government website, know that the folks behind the screen are doing our best to both improve it and our practices. There’s a common misconception that the government isn’t innovative, and that’s why, entering civic tech as an early-career designer, I was happily surprised by the culture and communities that are dedicated to craft improvement. Beyond benefiting any individual practitioner, opportunities for learning and development are key for breaking down silos, enabling the mission of tech modernization, and, most importantly, serving the public. Though agencies may vary in focus area, at the end of the day, our work shares this purpose and responsibility.
Over the past year, I’ve grown immensely due to the knowledge-sharing and support on multiple fronts. Within my placement in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), research share-outs, design community of practice sessions, and USCIS customer experience efforts have been instrumental for teaching me how to navigate tech policy, lean methodology, and design systems development at Global, the case management system for processing refugee and asylee applications. In parallel, GSA’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS) guild workshops, fireside talks, and U.S. Digital Corps mentors have introduced me to trauma-informed design and service blueprinting.
Valuing this interagency partnership – and recognizing that this one year milestone also means that there’s only one year until our fellowship comes to a close, I look forward to the cross-government settings where we can continue the conversation. Gatherings like the Code for America Summit and Digital.gov’s 2023 Government User Experience Summit will encourage this exchange, while, no doubt, also doubling as cohort reunions. This goes for industry spaces as well. Presenting at User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) 2023 alongside other U.S. Digital Corps design Fellows, we learned to draw insight from our public sector perspective, connecting over common challenges and opportunities.
All in all, it’s been a year of context-gathering and sense-making. For the next, I’m excited to contribute where I can — from improving design ops practices, to cheering on incoming Fellows and conducting refugee research abroad (note to self: eventually write about that).