Former Presidential Innovation Fellow Stresses the Program’s Importance for Tech Recruitment
Current VA CTO Charles Worthington noted that PIF and other programs offer an important avenue for technologists to serve the public, while the government is looking to attract top talent.
The Presidential Innovation Fellows is one of many programs seeking to attract skilled professionals to work with or for the government and increase points of entry—a critical need in the face of the technical workforce shortage. The PIF program celebrated ten years in 2022, and Nextgov recently sat down with former fellow and current Department of Veterans Affairs Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington, who attributed his career in government to the program.
“I definitely don’t know that I would be in government at all if this program hadn’t existed,” Worthington told Nextgov.
Worthington was a fellow in 2013 and worked on a project at the Energy Department to support the implementation of the administration’s open data policies. He also worked with other fellows on a variety of projects, including one for the VA, which he said he has since built on after officially joining the agency.
“It was awesome to have such a committed and diverse group of technologists that we’re all kind of figuring out how to try to use design and technology to make the government work better in all the various projects that they were working on,” Worthington said. “There were a lot of different—different projects, different agencies and different contexts. It was great to be able to work with that group of people to try to figure things out together.”
The PIF program—which aims to partner industry technologists with government innovators to improve federal tech—is the first of several programs designed to bring tech talent into the government. Other programs include the U.S. Digital Service—wherein technologists serve limited civic service tours to help the government solve complex challenges—and the newest U.S. Digital Corps—a two-year fellowship for early career technologists, which the General Services Administration started in August 2021. PIF fellows were also responsible for creating 18F, a program now housed in GSA that partners with other agencies to build and fix digital services across government.
Worthington noted that the tech sector does not have a set pipeline for public service, unlike other professions such as law, medicine and finance—where individuals can clerk for a judge, work at a national lab or the National Institutes of Health, or the Treasury Department, respectively.
“The tech industry as a whole really has a pretty immature tradition of public service, which is, I think, one of the biggest gaps in the tech industry,” Worthington said. “There’s a lot of other professions that do have this rich tradition of public service, where it is viewed as something important and good that some of the best members of that profession spend some of their career in public service. And the tech industry—maybe in part because it’s a new industry relatively speaking—it doesn’t really have that rich tradition yet.”
He noted that programs like PIF, USDS and the Digital Corps “are really important, because it shows people with technology skills—people that are software developers, product managers, designers and data scientists—it shows them that there is a way for them to use their skills inside of the government, that it kind of matches what they are able to do and can help them see how those skills could be used to deliver really important things. And I think that’s really important for the government.”
For Worthington, the PIF program “dramatically” impacted his career, in part because the program helped him transition from private sector to public sector work, while using his background as a technologist.
“I never expected that I would be doing public service for this long, or really that there was a way for technologists to use technology skills in a way that made sense to what I had done before,” he said. “I think the program was a way to introduce me to public service, so without that entry point in, I don’t know that I would have ever even made it to public service.”
While the tech industry is currently facing a rise in layoffs, the government is working to attract such workers. For example, the VA launched an initiative in November 2022 that includes conducting targeted outreach, improving its career website and expanding pay for tech specialists.
“We want to really clearly explain to people what sort of impact they can have,” Worthington said. “We also are trying to make a pathway for people that have maybe never worked in government before into roles here at [the] VA to make that pathway easier, because it can be confusing for someone that has never really considered working for the government. There’s a lot of new terminology around applying for government jobs that don’t match what people encounter in the private sector. So, we’ve set up a specialized website for explaining the jargon and helping people navigate through it, as well as an email inbox, which people can email if they’re interested in talk[ing] to a real person about what the process looks like.”
He added that, beyond introducing people to public service, the impact of PIF “comes down to the people” and the lasting impact of the work, not only as fellows but after their time in the program is over, considering many go on to work in or around the government.
According to Worthington, PIF—and his career in government since then—changed his preconceived notions about the government and the work it does. Before joining government, he explained, many see government leaders as “smart experts” that are separate from themselves.
“I think what I’ve realized, both as a fellow and since then, is that the government is really just made up of people, made up of Americans that have decided to devote some of their life to public service. And so it’s not like some special room of experts. It’s basically just the Americans that have decided to show up and do public service. We need all Americans with all different skill sets to be in that room, to opt-in to public service,” Worthington said.
He suggested one way to attract people to government work is to have some roles that are similar to the private sector.
“We need to create more pathways into roles that make sense to those professions. So, that’s software engineers, product managers, designers and data scientists, primarily,” he said. “The government needs more positions that would map to the current private sector technical, professional roles. And we were doing a lot of that in the VA. We’re attempting to work on getting our positions updated to reflect those types of roles.”
He added that when there is a large pay gap between the public and private sector, “it puts the public sector at a pretty strong disadvantage.”
Furthermore, Worthington stated that the government must improve its communication of the impact that people can have by working for the government. He noted that technologists that he talks to are thrilled about the reach their work could have.
“They get really excited by hearing about how we have a million people that have downloaded our new mobile app and that we get 10 million unique users per month on VA’s websites,” Worthington said. “The idea that they could build products that are impacting people at scale, I think is really appealing to technologists. So it’s up to us to communicate clearly what that impact can be. And then to facilitate a more straightforward way for those people to enter into government, which is why I think having programs like PIF and U.S. Digital Service and Digital Corps are so important.”