Brian A Jackson/

Innovation Fellows Detail Efforts to Improve Agency Operations

Projects range from user-centered Web design to a “Google” for procurement price data.

The presidential innovation fellows, often presumed to be recent grads with no real work experience, in reality are “experienced people with skill sets in high demand, such as coders and designers,” said Lena Trudeau, who directs the White House program from her post as an associate commissioner at the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service.

Speaking at a Thursday luncheon sponsored by the nonprofit Association for Federal Information Resources Management to highlight the technology fellows’ work, Trudeau said they serve as catalysts within agencies to break down “silos” and facilitate innovation and collaboration with the private sector. Forty-three fellows have served in the two-year-old program and another group is slated to be announced in February.

When fellow Aaron Snow, a coder with a law degree who co-founded a software startup, first met White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, Snow said, “[Park] told me, ‘Your job is to come spend six months, kick butt and then leave.’ So I got to parachute in and knock stuff around, but the people loved it as we planted seeds on how to do the work, and I had a good experience at agencies.”

So good, Trudeau noted, that Snow was asked to stay an extra two months to continue working with GSA, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the Small Business Administration to develop online tools for contracting and procurement. They included RFP-EZ, a simplified Web marketplace that has already allowed several hundred small businesses for the first time to cut through the brush surrounding federal contracting.

His FBOpen is a server that reshuffles bid solicitation data from FedBizOps to help contracting officers connect with firms. He’s also working on a portal that will allow agency purchasing managers to learn instantly what other agencies have paid for pencil sharpeners or laptops, a sort of “Google for prices paid by federal buyers,” Snow said.

Mollie Ruskin, a Web designer with experience at nonprofit and advocacy groups, has been working with the Veterans Affairs Department to promote “user-centered design” for websites and other efforts aimed at serving beneficiaries, she said. “We seek a human-centered solution to wicked social challenges,” Ruskin said.

Veterans seeking e-benefits, medical records or hiring information, Rushkin added, need software that’s responsive to cellphone, tablets and monitors. “The most important thing is not just building something cool but making sure we have a deep and abiding understanding of what users need,” she said.

James Sanders, a former classroom teacher working on open data initiatives at the Education Department, described his consultations with private-sector digital luminaries that led to “Education Datapalooza,” a Washington confab Jan. 15 attended by 630 technology professionals. He had helped show off the Education Department’s coming redesign of the way it presents data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which tracks colleges’ tuition costs, graduation rates and student debt.

Sanders also recounted his efforts to solve the problem of YouTube -- the world’s second-largest search tool -- being declared off-limits to many classroom students because it allows access to inappropriate content. “We figured out how to make it open, to educate the public and redesign it as safe,” which led to creation of YouTube for Schools. “Government has the same problem -- all this data but no one is using it,” he said.

Trudeau detailed other fellows’ work at 10 open source and collaborative online projects at 18 agencies, among them the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Energy Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Seeing these models in action gives me hope that change is really coming,” she said.

Asked whether fellows were involved in the troubled rollout and subsequent fixes to the Health and Human Services Department’s website, Trudeau said, “There are two fellows at, and they’re doing a great job. Let’s just leave it at that.”

(Image via Brian A Jackson/