Recruitment: What We Learned

TechCongress is committed to measuring outcomes, learning from missteps, and building an open and transparent organization.  As part of that commitment, we’re starting a series of posts describing What We Learned from our first year of the organization and the Congressional Innovation Fellowship.   Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing some of these insights to help buttress our own learning process and help others that may follow in our footsteps.

Each post will be based on our own internal After Action Review (AAR), which we are conducting after every major activity of TechCongress.   I first learned about AARs from a friend who worked for a veterans service organization and used AARs to methodically track her work and how she could improve.  I found them tremendously helpful as a Legislative Director in Congress and we’ve adopted the review process for TechCongress.  

Each AAR will consist of answers to four key questions:

  1. What was expected to happen?
  2. What actually occurred?
  3. What went well and why?
  4. What can be improved and how?

Without further ado, here’s What We Learned about recruitment.  

By way of background, the funding for our first class of fellows was confirmed on September 23, 2015.  From there, we started a sprint to recruit and select our first cohort by Thanksgiving.  We announced the fellowship on October 1 and launched the fellowship application a week later and applications closed three and a half weeks after that, on November 1.  

Our key objective was to spread news of the program and application far and wide.  But we also understood that we didn’t want to be part of the problem of diversity in technology, or diversity in Congress, and thus needed to design our recruitment process to proactively reach out to communities underserved in tech.  Our thesis was (and continues to be, based on our recruitment results) that the application would find its way to white, male (and generally liberal) technologists.  Therefore, our outreach efforts would be best served by focusing on underrepresented groups we wanted to apply, namely female, minority, LGBT, veteran, and conservative candidates

What did we learn from our 3 ½ weeks of recruitment?

Who you target matters.  We set a goal of 51% of our outreach to the aforementioned communities.  To track this metric, I kept a Google spreadsheet of every specific group or community leader a TechCongress team member contacted to circulate fellowship information.  In the end, we circulated the application to over 100 groups, communities or networks, 53% of which were under-represented in tech and as a consequence, 43% of our applicants were minority candidates.

But network effects also matter. Although we had excellent demographic diversity, our geographic diversity was not ideal.  Close to 75% of our applicants hailed from either Washington D.C. or the Bay Area, my former and current home, respectively.  It’s to be expected that technologists interested in Congress would come from DC or Silicon Valley but a core part of success for TechCongress requires bringing new voices into the policymaking discussion.  There are likely many more voices in the rest of the country that we missed in our first recruitment effort.

Nominations drive action and awareness.  We knew at the outset that a personal referral was a powerful way to drive interest and credibility.  I’d seen this first-hand each year working with the New Leaders Council, a progressive leadership training organization that has used the nomination process to drive applicants during its annual recruiting cycle.   I’d hoped to automate the process, but we didn’t have the right tools so we settled on a basic nomination form linked to a Google Spreadsheet.  Every time a form was submitted, I received an email from Google.  I then personally emailed the nominee notifying them that they had been nominated.  In four weeks, 144 candidates were nominated for the program.  It was a great way to establish credibility with prospective candidates.  In addition, asking for nominations was a great tangible and specific call to action for each of our supporters.  Any time someone asked me what they could do to help, I had an easy answer: nominate a candidate.  

Conference calls work in place of events.  Because of the very short notice, we didn’t have time to organize any in-person events to raise awareness and answer questions about the program.  Instead, we organized a weekly call at Thursdays at 6:30pm Eastern (in order to be consistent but also convenient for a range of time zones).  We used UberConference, which was simple enough that I could run and moderate each call by myself.  It generated a local call-in number (with no pin needed) and allowed me to mute callers on and off from a simple dashboard display on my laptop (which came in handy when several callers were clearly walking through the city and generating feedback on the call).  Eighty-three people called in between three calls, and each call ran between 60 and 90 minutes (with 80% of the time devoted to Q&A).  

Use Screendoor.  I’ll spend more time discussing how much I love the Screendoor application platform in our Selections: What We Learned post, but for now I will say that choosing Screendoor was the best purchase decision I have made since founding and running TechCongress.

We need fellowship stories.  The most common question we received was always something along the lines of “what will the fellow actually do in Congress?”  In part, I think this is because it’s difficult to understand the range of work a Congressional staffer undertakes on a day-to-day basis, and it’s just as difficult to communicate these activities to those who haven’t worked in or around the Capitol building. We clearly need to curate stories about an average day from our first class of fellows for our next round of recruitment.

Technologists have not given up on Congress.  Congress has a 14% approval rating.  This election cycle is the most angry and bitter of this, or perhaps several, generations.  And many of the Legislative Branch’s problems may be intractable for years to come.  But with 24 days notice, 213 technologists applied to be an inaugural Congressional Innovation Fellow.  There is a strong desire to build and modernize this essential institution— our first branch of government.  To quote one applicant:

Being a veteran, I believe in public service. I believe in technology’s potential and reach.  Balanced, prescient legislation can only be wrought through informed perspective and accessible conversation. We need this program. Dedicating myself to its goals and systemically improving technology policy is one of the most worthy causes I can imagine.

The tech community— a group of pragmatic and intensely-focused problem solvers— has not written off the Congress of the United States.  I couldn’t think of a more heartening display as we look to build this organization.