Inside the Presidential Innovation Fellows program: A Q&A with the White House

Tuesday - 4/1/2014, 4:00am EDT

Faster and improved disaster response can save lives. A streamlined buying process can save the government hundreds of thousands of dollars. Better technology can give the public access to important data in minutes instead of hours.

Over the past two years, 61 talented and diverse individuals from the private sector teamed up with federal agencies to develop solutions like these to some of the nation's toughest challenges.

After marked success in the first two rounds, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program is now accepting applications for Round 3 until April 7, 2014. Round 1 of the program launched in August 2012 with five projects. Round 2 launched in June 2013 with 10 projects and is currently ongoing.

Federal News Radio's three-day special report, "Solving Our Nation's Toughest Challenges: The Presidential Innovation Fellows," takes a behind-the-scenes look at the fellows program, learns some of the greatest success stories from rounds 1 and 2, and looks forward to future rounds of the program.

Jennifer Pahlka, the deputy chief technology officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), helps oversee and run the Presidential Innovation Fellows program along with others in OSTP and the General Services Administration. In an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio, Pahlka explains how the fellows program was born and what impact the projects are making.

Listen to Pahlka's full interview with Federal News Radio or read excerpts below.

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Federal News Radio: Give me a broad overview of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. What is a fellow?

Jennifer Pahlka, deputy chief technology officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Pahlka helps oversee the PIF program. (Photo: Code for America/Flickr)

Jennifer Pahlka: A Presidential Innovation Fellow is someone who wants to serve his or her country and has the skills that we need to bring government along to be truly a 21st century government. They come and partner together with some amazing leaders and forward thinking folks in government to work on projects that have had a fantastic track record of success.

FNR: How did the idea for the program come up and why does it exist?

JP: My boss, Federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, really saw there was an opportunity to bring folks in who could look at problems in a bit of a different way and say, "Let's solve this in months instead of years." He saw folks doing this in other programs around the country, and he saw the impact that people could have when they came in for short periods of time.

The first class of fellows started in 2012. That was a group of 18, and they just did amazing things, launching things like the Blue Button program, launching RFP-EZ, which has had an impact on the way the federal government buys IT. We are currently still working with the second round of fellows.

FNR: A misconception out there is that the fellows program is similar to an internship, or these fellows are just out of college — but that's not true. Who are the fellows and where do they come from?

JP: They come from very diverse backgrounds. The youngest fellow has been in his 20s and the oldest in his 70s. They are an incredibly diverse bunch — men, women from all over the country who really just want to come to government for a year and make an enormous difference.

They generally have a fair amount of experience. They're also really coming to this from the perspective of what they've achieved in life, rather than the positions they've held. A fair number of them come from what Todd Park likes to call "metaphysical Silicon Valley," which doesn't mean they are actually from Silicon Valley, but that they are working in a way that is consistent with the very generative kinds of platforms that have had such an impact on the world in the past 20 years.

FNR: Do you have fellows coming from both the public and private sector?

JP: A larger number of fellows come from the private sector, but we certainly do have a number of them who have been in public service for some time.

FNR: Is there any opportunity for people living internationally to participate in the fellows program?

JP: We do accept applications, so as long as you're legally applicable to work in the United States, we'd love to have you work as a fellow.

(What is a Presidential Innovation Fellow? GSA's Lena Trudeau, who helps oversee the program, and three fellows explain it in their own words. Interview with Pahlka continues below video.)

FNR: You mentioned RFP-EZ as one of the great successes of this program. Could you mention a few other success stories of programs and fellows?

JP: The Blue Button Initiative is a way that Americans have secure, electronic access to their own health information. That was kicked off in the first round, and now it reaches millions of Americans. It started out as a project for veterans, for whom access to health information is so critical. But now it reaches so many more people and will be, I think, the standard in the United States pretty soon.

Following on the heels of that, the Green Button Initiative provides electric utility customers with easy and secure access to their energy usage. This helps people understand what they're spending, and how they might reduce their spending using third party apps. There's an enormous ecosystem of companies and jobs that are created when you release this data. People can do things with it that help you change behavior and change, really, the course of the country.

Another great example is a current project at the Food and Drug Administration. The fellow there was able to make an enormous amount of data about the adverse effects of drugs available in digital format and available through an API, such that you can actually look at this data now and see trends in it in mere seconds rather than months. The FDA is actually going to be able to use this data to much more effectively save lives. This is something that can be very, very hard to do, but the fellow, Sean Herron, worked with his partners in the FDA. Together they were able to get this done in so much less time, and it's really going to have an impact on people's lives.

FNR: Once the projects are completed, how do different agencies adopt and begin to use them? Are the projects targeted to one agency, many agencies, or do they directly impact the public?

JP: Many of the projects do directly impact the public, and usually that's after they've had their impact within government. This is the wonderful thing for someone really wanting to make an enormous difference with their work, because they're working inside federal government, where you can have that impact. The projects that the fellows work on have a home. They have sustainability because they're developed in conjunction with the institution that will maintain them.

FNR: How is each round similar or different from one another? Do the rounds build off of each other?

JP: They absolutely do build off of each other. One of the points of consistency you'll see is in one of the three categories of fellows for Round 3, which is data innovation. That is building off two years of successful outcomes with open data fellows who work to make data available and the MyData Initiative, like the Green Button, Blue Button and Gold Button Initiative.

Each project is different and each fellow has a different experience. But there is also a lot in common across the fellows experience and around the kinds of things that fellows tend to do in these programs.

From left to right: Sarah Allen, Diego Mayer-Cantu, and Jason Shen - the three fellows working on open data initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution. Click the picture above to view a photo gallery of all of the Round 2 fellows.

We have some fellows working with the Smithsonian Institution this year. One of the things they were able to do was have an amazing hackathon using the release of some of the data from one of the really beautiful collections in the Smithsonian. And people came together and built beautiful apps with this data that allow you to see the collection in gorgeous digital format.

This is something that many fellows do — they make the data open and then they bring the community in to make more out of it than just the government could or just the fellows program could. That's just one example of the way the fellows use the same kinds of tactics and same kinds of outreach mechanisms.

FNR: You recently announced applications are open for Round 3 of the fellows program. How does the application and selection process work?

JP: The application process is open to anybody who feels drawn to this kind of work and is very excited about the chance to have a great impact and to serve our country. We are accepting applications right now through April 7. You can see our information about all of the projects at WhiteHouse.gov/InnovationFellows. And I really, really encourage anybody who's ever thought about serving our country in this particular way to check it out and fill out an application.

It's certainly a big crew of people who want to help. We have a wonderful panel of subject matter experts who will help select Round 3 along with agency partners. We always meet such amazing people through it.

FNR: Are there plans to continue the program into Round 4?

JP: I certainly hope that we continue this program for many, many years to come.

Coming up Wednesday in day 2 of our special report, "Solving Our Nation's Toughest Challenges: The Presidential Innovation Fellows," we take an in depth look at the Blue Button project and Disaster Response and Recovery. We also get to know the Round 2 fellows behind these projects and learn about their transitions from private sector to fellow.

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, SOLVING OUR NATION'S TOUGHEST CHALLENGES: THE PRESIDENTIAL INNOVATION FELLOWS

Saving lives ... one mobile app at a time

How the future of health care lies behind a Blue Button

Data innovation, crowdsourcing on the horizon for Innovation Fellows program

Video: What is a Presidential Innovation Fellow?

Photos: Meet the Round 2 Presidential Innovation Fellows