Presidential Innovation Fellow Spurs His Fellow Innovators

Sigmund Freud famously remarked on “the narcissism of small differences” referring to the fact that people or organizations with similar outlooks are more likely to pick fights over the minutiae of their differences. Yet the members of the Civic Digital Fellowship, in meeting with the first two organizations that troubleshoot tech issues across government (the U.S. Digital Service and 18F), heard nothing but praise from dedicated federal employees about their colleagues. Their sit-down with Steven Babitch, a fellow of the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF), was no exception, as he instructed the Civic Digital Fellows on both the intricacies of his job as well as navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth.

Steven Babitch discussing his experience as a Presidential Innovation Fellow.

Babitch, who is stationed with the FBI and knowing that his audience had already been exposed to the breadth of government civil servants working in tech, began his discussion by spelling out the differences between all three aforementioned groups. Far from there being only minor distinctions, each has a clear-cut purpose in government. Whereas 18F focuses its attention on helping government build and acquire digital, and the United States Digital Service (USDS) plays the more reactive role of firefighting existing problems, the PIFs’ purpose is, in Babitch’s words, to “work as a tip of the spear on tough ambiguous problems that can benefit from the proper framing of the problem before designing and building solutions.” He went on to describe it as being “about culture change, but through the use of tech, design, data science or the innovation skill sets.” However, in a departure from the other two tech-oriented services, PIFs are typically detailed to one federal agency.

As the discussion stretched on, it became apparent that Babitch’s rationale for entering the government dovetailed with the goals of the Civic Digital Fellows: a basic desire to serve the public. As Babitch noted, “I’m from Detroit, so I’ve seen a city in decline throughout my childhood… I learned to have empathy and that is what drove my passion.” Given the fact that the Civic Digital Fellows, with similar goals in mind, purposefully opted for a summer stint in D.C. rather than Silicon Valley, this mutual recognition of motives led to mutual admiration. As Babitch stated toward the end of the meeting, “You, as representatives of the next generation of thinking, are incredibly invested.”

The Civic Digital Fellows work to incept their Climate Innovation Platform plans.

With 112 fellows dispersed over eighteen tech regions and eleven industry sectors, Babitch elaborated on the PIFs’ unique role as being almost akin to co-stewards, along with their federal agency partners, who ensure that government tech operates smoothly: “You could build something, but the transfer of it, the durability of it? How are you going to ensure that it lasts?” With respect to his role at the FBI, his task of helping to define the Bureau’s private sector engagement was counterbalanced by two competing imperatives. On the one hand, the point of being innovative necessarily involves disruption (indeed, disruption is a key ethos of tech). But on the other hand, any government organization has a certain in-house resistance to change, especially change brought about by outsiders.

As a result, Babitch devised 5 Principles for Mutually Beneficial Private Sector Engagement designed to circumvent these challenges:

  1. It’s important for a PIF to cultivate mutual understanding — after all, they have to bridge the divide between the private and public sectors.
  2. Building broad platforms and solutions (digital and beyond) has to be undertaken with and not for the partners.
  3. One must measure value and not investigations.
  4. Multiplying one’s impact is essential if one wants to keep the metaphoric ball rolling.
  5. A simple and self-explanatory directive to encompass everything: “Participate. Don’t lead.”

In order for Civic Digital Fellows to get a handle on this process, Babitch introduced an activity that related to his prior work with the World Bank in Brazil counterbalancing the needs of farmers and the necessities of environmental entrepreneurs. He asked the fellows to divide into two groups and devise a plan to bring them together in common cause. In so doing, he requested they think of the stakeholders in question: With which ones should we deal? Should the dealings be conducted together or apart? What’s on the agenda? How?

The Civic Digital Fellows pose with their Climate Innovation Platforms and PIF Steven Babitch (back center).

For twenty minutes, the Civic Digital Fellows worked to sharpen their answers to these questions, drawing up flow charts. Eventually, they presented their favored paths forward, and they largely resembled Babitch’s. His real-life Brazilian example consisted of seating representatives of the nine different organizations with which the World Bank was dealing at different tables, guiding them toward the goal of intermingling. He then gave them each a separate problem to tackle, with the ultimate goal of heightening table solidarity in the face of this problem at the expense of previous organizational solidarity.

In this way, the Civic Digital Fellows left the meeting with a key lesson in mind: That for all the technological experience in the world, one cannot place a premium on old-fashioned problem solving.

The Civic Digital Fellowship is the first fully-funded data science and technology internship program for innovative students to solve pressing problems in federal agencies. It is the product of a collaboration between Coding it Forward, The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, and the U.S. Census Bureau. Together, they have brought fourteen talented technologists to Washington, D.C. to address pressing technical issues at the U.S. Census Bureau.