It seemed like a fool’s errand, even to a perpetual Pollyanna such as me. The idea of college techies working for the government had a triple whammy working against it.
First, government internships and fellowships often paid nothing, compared to the lucrative internships tech companies could make available. Second, the work was often low-value, ranging from clerical photocopying jobs at the low end to running SharePoint projects at the “high” end. Unlike tech company internships, federal agencies offered few out-of-office opportunities for extra learning and networking. And third, govtech had the reputation as a tech backwater, where little interesting work was going on — even for full-time employees.
But against the odds, the Coding it Forward has flourished.
The idea for a civic tech organization for students grew out of the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest event for women in tech. At that conference a few years ago, there was a speech by then-federal CTO Megan Smith appealing for technologists to work in public service, as Hopper herself had. “But at the booths afterwards,” as I wrote at the time, “all the students went to industry or startup booths; the government booths were very poorly attended.” Chris Kuang, one of the Harvard students who co-founded Coding if Forward, noticed that students seemed unaware of opportunities in government, and set about fixing that problem.
The original plan was to do a blog, to show what other students had done in civic tech. A turning point came because two of the co-founders in 2017 took a course offered at the Kennedy School by Nick Sinai, former deputy CTO in the White House, which connected students in the course with interesting tech projects in government. “Through the experience working for a government client, [the two students] saw how meaningful such work could be,” Kuang said. Thus the idea of actively organizing student internships – Civic Digital Fellowships — in government was born.
Sinai put the students in touch with Jeff Meisel, then the Census Bureau’s chief marketing officer and a former Presidential Innovation Fellow, due to their mutual interest in open data. During a conversation, the topic turned to the difficulty of attracting students to government tech work; Meisel had tried to organize a data science internship the previous year, but it attracted no student interest. Coding it Forward and Meisel agreed on the idea of a pilot at Census. The first year got started in just a few months; the program was off the ground with 14 students.
Fast forward to three years later. The first year of the effort there were 225 applicants from 80 schools; in 2018 it shot up to 856 from 175 universities; this year it was 1,018 applications from 250 schools. In 2017 Coding it Forward gave out 14 fellowships, all at Census. In 2018 it spread to multiple agencies with 36 fellowships; this year the group expects 60.
It is incredibly impressive – these are, after all, just a bunch of college students – how Coding It Forward has created an infrastructure to work on the nuts and bolts. With help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Knight Foundation, and Schmidt Futures, they have in the last year hired a Fellow from the program’s first year, Rachel Dodell, as a full-time executive director in Washington to supplement the six undergrad staff members who work part-time for the organization.
Through a group called the Washington Center that has for many years organized semester-long D.C. internships for students, Coding it Forward has also gotten a subcontract under a BPA with GSA to provide digital services. The organization is considering at some point possibly applying for their own GSA Schedule. (How many college kids know about the GSA schedules?).
Many projects have involved working on user experience, an area where the government has talent gaps and where the fellows can be sort of reverse mentors teaching feds. Two fellows used user research and UX design to streamline how CMS can serve Medicare patients using FOIA to access their own health claims and records. Another fellow worked at the Census Bureau to parse free-text feedback from users on Census.gov to design a more efficient and effective pipeline for UX improvements for the bureau’s web presence.
A look at Coding It Forward’s website shows how the group makes this program attractive to students, advertising it as “a new pipeline into public service for technology students.” They note the program provides funding (“a $4,000 stipend, free housing, and transportation to and from Washington”), a chance to hear speakers from government agencies and private tech companies, a mentor, and a demo day at the end of the summer to showcase their work. The website also provides links to write-ups about past fellows and what they worked on.
It’s too late to apply for a Civic Digital Fellowship this year (Coding it Forward’s application deadline is January, to match when tech companies hire rather when the government does). But it’s not too early to think about getting your agency’s act together to apply for next year.) Note that agencies who want interns to work on SharePoint need not apply.
This is quite an achievement. In three short years Coding it Forward has become part of the government’s tech scene.