The Landscape of GovTech Work
The change in administration is a time when some leave government, and many are drawn in by new possibilities. Many technologists or digital product people may wonder how they can jump in and help make government services better. This post identifies some ways to pitch in.
Government is huge, representing about a third of the economy in the US. Similarly, the government technology ecosystem is vast. There are many ways to lend tech talent to public purpose. This high-level landscape is certain to leave out much due to its brevity.
There is no single path. Many individuals, Pluribus employees included, have moved around between commercial, in-house government, and government consulting roles.
United States Digital Service (USDS)
USDS has gotten much recent attention, including an easter egg shout-out on the new whitehouse.gov and buildbackbetter.gov websites. Pluribus VP Robbie Holmes recently shared his experience as a USDS alum. There are two types of engagements within USDS: becoming an HQ employee under Office of Management and Budget (OMB), or being hired directly into an agency team. In both cases, you are a USDS member enabling cross-agency collaboration. All teams work as hands-on participants to create or improve digital products, practices, etc.
OMB is basically the administrative arm of the White House and oversees, well, the management and budget of executive branch departments. The HQ USDS team often leads discovery sprints and can be detailed to specific agencies. HQ team members are OMB employees, often referred to as working under the Executive Office of the President and for the White House.
Agency-level teams are permanently aligned to cabinet-level agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, or Department of Health and Human Services. Staff are employees of the respective agency, working primarily within the mission and needs of their respective agency.
Update: USDS now only hires into HQ. The agency-level teams exist as related teams that are not technically USDS teams (though aligned in terms of culture and practice).
18F is a government-to-government digital consultancy that lives within the General Services Administration (GSA). They partner with agencies to procure or build digital services which don’t have that sort of capability (or don’t have enough of it). 18F also started to support some government-to-government products such as cloud.gov and login.gov. Vishal Iyer, our Director of Product Design, joined Pluribus Digital after serving at 18F.
GSA is the arm of the government that buys things. For example, they own and operate most government real estate and office buildings on behalf of other agencies. Much of the government also buys various goods and IT services via GSA catalogs or supply “schedules” (where GSA has negotiated favorable bulk prices). 18F is a logical extension of that concept to provide a shared digital capability for agencies.
18F’s approach is to closely partner with teams of civil servants at partner agencies. They pair a small cross functional team of designers, developers and product managers to help build their capacity to build software using modern software design and development practices.
Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF)
The PIF program is a sort of precursor that fed some early USDS and 18F staff, and is still going strong. Each fellow (or a small team of fellows) is embedded within government agencies as “entrepreneurs in residence” for 12 months, with an opportunity to renew for a total of two years. It’s meant to inject new thinking and help get some priority problems solved. The rotational nature may be attractive to some, but is not an ongoing ‘career’ type position. A number of PIFs have transitioned into agency, USDS, or 18F roles.
US Digital Corps
The US Digital Corps, also run by GSA, is a new program that targets early-career technologists in a 2-year program. This is a great addition, since USDS, 18F and PIF tended to skew heavily toward more experienced people.
Federal Agency IT
While the above are all specialized programs to bring in specialized talent, most government tech has been overseen and built in the traditional agency IT or CIO organizations. This tends to be the place for long-term career positions within government. Digital maturity varies agency by agency. For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was something of a template for modern government tech. Some other agencies have more work to do. In most but not all cases, agency IT work is more oversight of work done by contractors than hands-on tech work.
Note: PIF, 18F, and USDS all hire for defined terms which are essentially limited to 2-4 years. Career federal IT positions are the primary way to work directly for the government on a long-term basis.
Traditional IT Contractors
Most hands-on work is done via contractors. If you want to write code or otherwise directly build products, you are more likely to do so outside of direct government employment. Many big-name firms, and many more names only known in the government space, have provided this capability for years. It can be a solid option for mission-oriented work, and occasionally innovative and modern work.
Digital Services & Civic Tech Companies
PIF, USDS, and 18F have responded to a need for fresh thinking and top talent in the government space. Echoing that, a number of companies have emerged as the commercial response to the same issues. This includes members of the Digital Services Coalition (which Pluribus Digital co-founded). This breed of company allows people to do hands-on work with a strong focus on emphasizing public purpose missions and modern practice.
State & Local Government
The Federal government isn’t the only path to public service. State or local governments have similar options for in-house or consulting work. Some states have parallel digital service programs such as the Colorado Digital Service or the California Office of Digital Innovation.
Coding it Forward Fellowships
Coding it Forward runs summer fellowships that embed interns into federal agencies, and supports them with mentorship during that time.
The civic tech movement has seen a number of citizen technologists step up and build things at the grassroots level. Code for America is probably the biggest voice in this space. The US Digital Response is a newer pro-bono organization. There has been in explosion in the last several years of open source government projects. Contributing policies vary, but many will accept pull requests.
This post includes insights and content from several Pluribus Digital staff, each of whom are happy to provide more insight into the government technology space.
- Ben Morris, Chief Delivery Officer
- Robbie Holmes, VP of Product Development
- Halai Shukran, Director of Talent
- Vishal Iyer, Director of Product Design
Jan 31, 2021: edited to better reflect the PIF program.
August 4, 2022: edited to add in US Digital Corps and Coding it forward.
August 8, 2022: edited to add note on USDS agency teams.