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What We Learned: The 2016 Fellowship

Our program hypothesis was that Congress was hungry for technical expertise.  Within a few days of our first cohort of fellows landing in Congress in 2016, we knew we'd proven our hypothesis correct. 

John and JC began contributing right away.  John helped pull together a hearing about cybersecurity standards at the Department of Veterans Affairs and JC began researching federal standards on electronic health record interoperability.  They transitioned seamlessly to serving in Congress, and required a lot less ongoing support from TechCongress than we’d expected.  

Within a matter of days, the fellows were acting much like regular staff in their Congressional offices—meeting with stakeholders, developing hearings, and educating Members of Congress and staff on a variety of issues.  The first clear lesson from their experience was that finding mature, mid-career fellows who can learn quickly and contribute right away, without a lot of hand-holding from their supervisors, was the correct approach to our recruitment.  

The ultimate goal of the fellowship is to build cross-sector leaders who understand both the complexities of technology and the challenges of government. Though the primary duty of the fellow is to support the office in which they are placed, we work hard to make sure fellows connect with the broader tech policy community.  It is why we meet with a range of stakeholders—from academics and think tanks, to lobbyists and activists—in our orientation, and why we organize a range of ongoing programming and professional development during the program.  

Like the lessons learned that we’ve taken away from our other core activities, we gained a lot of knowledge about how the fellows contributed to their host offices in Congress during the first year, and how we should think about connecting the fellows to the broader policy community.  Here are some of those findings.  

Fellows immediately contributed in a meaningful way.  Of course we had hypothesized and hoped—based on dozens of customer discovery interviews prior to launching—that the fellows would bring in expertise and knowledge not normally available to Congressional staff, and that they could add immediate value to their office.  This was clearly the case.  

JC worked on a range of health IT and health technology issues.  His biggest effort focused on developing standards for electronic health records, so that the digital systems used by different providers—from hospitals to pharmacies to the family doctor—would speak to one another.  The 21st Century Cures Act (which was signed into law in December 2016) included a section on modernizing electronic health record systems, and JC spent a great deal of time helping the Health Subcommittee navigate the issue.  

He also spent a significant amount of time on a proposal to create a system of unique identifiers on medical devices—VIN numbers for medical tools—that would link to our digital health records.  As it stands, if there’s a defect in an implant (like a pacemaker), or a medical tool that doctors use in surgery, there’s not a system or process for notifying individuals who use or rely on these tools. Building consensus is the cornerstone of political change, and JC held over 100 meetings—which he tracked meticulously—with stakeholders ranging from staff at the Department of Health and Human Services to insurance company representatives to find the best possible solution.  

John’s biggest contribution was supporting the House Oversight Committee’s investigation into the Office of Personnel Management breach, the largest breach in federal government history.  The personal information of 21.5 million federal employees was compromised by the incident, and John played a key role in the investigation, leading the technical review and drafting core sections of the 200+ page analysis of the hack.

John also supported a range of other activities, including tracking implementation of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), monitoring compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), and advising on the technical implications of the FBI’s attempts to force Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooters’ iPhone.  As his fellowship project, he co-founded the Congressional Tech Staffer Association (CTSA).  The mission of CTSA is to connect Congressional staff who are passionate about and working on technology issues.  It’s also a forum for staff to have frank, off-the-record conversations with technology experts about key tech issues.  CTSA is organizing regular events to help improve the technical capacity of existing Congressional staff.  

Getting fellows off the Hill for events is hard.  We designed our fellowship programming in order to connect John and JC to thought leaders inside and outside of Congress. For example, in February, we organized a lunch at the New America offices to convene the community of policy technologists in DC, and in March, we connected fellows with staff at the Congressional Management Foundation to learn about other efforts focused on modernizing the legislative branch.  

But getting fellows off of Capitol Hill—either to go down the street for a meeting, or across the country for a trip—is hard.  Schedules in Congress are always subject to change, and driven by current events and shifting priorities.  Taking a fellow “off campus” for any period of time when Congress is in session takes them out of the loop.  When events happen, an unexpected visitor drops by the office, or a Member of Congress needs something, the fellow needs to physically be in the building.   

This year, we aligned our events to track more closely with Congressional recesses, during which fellows have more flexible hours.  And our programming has been much more informal, and tailored to each fellow.  Rather than inventing events of our own, we’re working to plug fellows into existing groups, like the monthly Tech Policy Happy Hour, Third Thursday events with Executive Branch tech staffers, and Fellows’ lunches at New America. We are connecting fellows with people one-by-one, and making networking a key part of our bi-weekly check in.  

Connecting with programs in the Administration (U.S. Digital Service, 18F) is more complicated than we thought.  I was inspired to build TechCongress by the great examples set by Todd Park, John Paul Farmer, Megan Smith, and others of  bringing technologists into the Executive Branch.  Since our mission is to translate those lessons to the Legislative Branch, it only made sense that our fellows should collaborate with the great tech thinkers at the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, and Presidential Innovation Fellowship.  In practice, however, connecting our Congressional fellows to their peers in the Executive Branch was more difficult than we expected, because of lack of natural overlap on their work, and because each branch of government is designed to serve as a check on another.

For example, John served on the House Oversight Committee, which is charged with overseeing government programs, including the Administration’s technology initiatives.  The Committee convened an oversight hearing in June focused specifically on 18F and the U.S. Digital Service.  In addition, on some health IT issues, the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress didn’t see eye-to-eye.  That meant that, even though our fellows and the technologists in the White House had a lot in common in terms of expertise, they weren’t necessarily aligned on policy priorities, which made any formal collaboration difficult.  

This year, we’re connecting our fellows to the community of technologists in the Executive Branch in a more informal way, through social events and one-on-one introductions.  

New America has a lot of great resources.  The institution—with its network of experts, fellows programs, and the complementary work of the Cybersecurity Initiative, Political Reform Initiative, and Open Technology Institute—has an enormous pool of experts and expertise.  In some cases, we did a good job of connecting our fellows to these resources.  In other cases, we didn’t.

One success included connecting John to a number of cybersecurity experts in residence at New America, including Peter Singer and Ian Wallace of the Cybersecurity Initiative. Following the TechCongress fellowship, John joined New America as a Cybersecurity Fellow.  John also participated in a meeting of the Leg Branch Capacity Working group, a project of the Political Reform team, to talk about his work to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment.  

But there were also a number of ways we could have better connected the fellows to New America.  We didn’t do a great job of incorporating the fellows into the range of the organization’s events, like the New America annual conference, the cybersecurity conference, and other convenings.  JC— whose work on digital health policy had less natural alignment with New America’s work—benefited less from its network.

We’ve tried to improve this by introducing the 2017 fellows to New America from the beginning.  We had meetings with key staff at New America during orientation, and heard from President Anne-Marie Slaughter directly on the second day of the program.  And I’m doing a better job of sharing activities and events with the fellows, and making sure they’re looped into the annual conference and lunches with staff.

Interacting with press is complicated. Once placed in Congress, the primary duty of the fellow is to report to their sponsoring office.  That requires a significant amount of confidentiality about the fellow’s work, as most activity in Congress is sensitive and not for public consumption.  At the same time, however, it’s important that we’re able to discuss some of the work of the fellows in order to grow TechCongress, recruit new fellows, and show clear outcomes to our funders.  This is an extra challenge when talking to the media, who often want to speak with fellows about how they’re contributing to the work of Congress.  It was a difficult balancing act, especially in the first year, without alumni who could describe their experiences.  

Early in the program, a few reporters reached out requesting to speak with the fellows.  We routed those inquiries through the press offices of the Oversight Committee and Health Subcommittee, respectively, but we quickly realized that these requests put the offices in an uncomfortable position.  Regular Congressional staff are prohibited from talking to press about their work in Congress.  In my six years in Congress, I can recall just a single time I spoke to press, and that was on background on an issue in which I was intimately involved.    

We’ve therefore decided that our fellows should follow the same guidelines as Congressional staff about talking to the press, which is not to do it at all during their fellowship.  This makes it easier on the fellows, who can focus on the important day-to-day work of the fellowship, and the sponsoring offices, who can have greater trust in the fellow.  Talking with press about work produced during the fellowship remains a difficult balance, but having two fellows who have finished the program and can talk more openly about their experience alleviates some of these challenges.

We need someone in Washington.  I kept in touch with the fellows regularly.  We had bi-weekly check-ins over the phone, and I was in Washington each month to connect face-to-face.  I have long maintained—and still believe—that there is much more value in me being in San Francisco than in DC.  The hardest parts of starting TechCongress have been learning how to launch and grow a startup, and getting to know the tech community, both of which are much easier in the Bay Area.

But we miss out on a lot by not having a more significant presence in Washington.  The tech policy community is still largely in DC.  Without TechCongress staff in Washington, we miss out on significant opportunities to build partnerships—with advocates, agencies, companies, and Hill staff—and to connect the fellows to people and resources.

So we’re going to change that.  Thanks to generous funding from the Ford Foundation, Reid Hoffman, and the Hewlett Foundation, we will be making our first hire, and bringing on a Program Manager.  

Like any startup, the first year of TechCongress was a rollercoaster.  We were building the plane while we were flying it, designing our recruitment, selections, orientation, placement and fellowship support activities from scratch, one-by-one.  We made many mistakes, but learned a ton, and validated the core reasoning for the program.  

In year two, we’re focused on incorporating our learnings in the organization, and building out the core Congressional Innovation Fellowship, which is now funded through 2021.  And, most importantly, we’re focused how we can grow the program sustainably.  

We’ve got a number of ideas about how to do that.  Could we partner with universities to place technical graduates students in government?  Could we apply our model to state legislatures?  Could we recruit fellows to build tech in Congress, like the U.S. Digital Service or 18F?   Could we develop mechanisms to train Congressional staff, or connect them to technical subject matter experts outside of Washington?  

These are all open questions.  We’ve got hypotheses about the answers, which we’re now beginning to test.  Stay tuned.