Demand for the first edition of Coding it Forward’s Civic Digital Fellowship surprises even the founders

The potential for impact drew computer science students from across the country to the Census Bureau this summer.
A bunch of Civic Digital Fellows on a visit to the U.S. Digital Service offices. (Coding it Forward)

As recently as March, the precocious group of Harvard undergrads wasn’t sure it would work, but it did: Fourteen students are now in week nine of a 10-week internship at the U.S. Census Bureau as the first cohort of the Civic Digital Fellowship.

The idea was simple: What if we can find a way to get undergraduate computer science talent into interesting, meaningful tech internships in the federal government? Government internship recruitment, the comp-sci students found, isn’t targeted at them. But working in tech at federal agencies appeals to the likes of Chris Kuang, a rising sophomore at Harvard and one of the co-founders Coding it Forward, the organization that created the fellowship. And, well, the government would love to have them.

“The young talent in our network didn’t know they were being sought by the government,” Kuang said. The Civic Digital Fellowship was conceived as a go-between, recruiting young tech talent from across the country for a summer fellowship.

For this first edition of the fellowship the Census Bureau stepped up, offering the students paid summer positions in engineering, design, user experience and more.


Granted, the whole thing had some not-insignificant backing. The group’s champion on the inside was Jeff Meisel, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow who works as the chief marketing officer and division chief at the Census Bureau’s Customer Liaison and Marketing Services Office. Meisel pushed the bureau to secure funding and make room for the students.

“It took a monumental effort to pull it off” in such a short time, Meisel told FedScoop in an email. But seeing the students’ passion makes all that worth it, he said.

“We’ve been able to compete with Silicon Valley tech companies for STEM talent, which is not an easy thing to do as a federal agency,” he said.

Even with only grassroots advertising, the number of applications was overwhelming, Kuang said. Initially the fellowship had planned to admit eight students — but it ended up bringing 14 to D.C. The students are from schools across the country, including Harvard, MIT, the University of Texas at Austin and others.

The IRS and Environmental Protection Agency also expressed interest in the program, but couldn’t find the budget for it. Between them, these agencies did manage to bring eight unpaid interns in through Coding it Forward’s Pipeline Program, which is separate from the fellowship.


Taking on a life of its own

At the Census Bureau, the students are involved in all kinds of projects. Fellow Rachel Dodell, for example, is on a team working to redesign a website that makes census data available to small businesses. Another fellow is working to build a kind of data-science training platform that can teach citizens some new skills utilizing data from the census, Kuang said.

These aren’t just busywork, either. “It’s nice to know [our work] will continue to be used once we leave,” Dodell said.

Dodell and Kuang continuously cite the potential “impact” of their work in the government as what excites them most. This, interestingly, is in line with the pitch federal CIOs tend to make when trying to attract talent.

The founders have every intention of keeping the fellowship going, preferably with additional agencies. They’re excited to work with “any agency that recognizes the need,” Kuang said. “We’ve had quite a few agencies actually reach out to us,” Dodell added. The agencies will have to set aside resources, of course, but the team hopes they’re starting early enough this year to make budget room for 2018.


Finding another ‘no brainer’

Meisel told FedScoop that future Census Bureau participation feels like a “no brainer,” and that he would encourage other agencies to participate as well. “Agencies should consider the program as part of their overall talent strategy, as they think about the future of their workforce, and how to bring in next generation digital skills,” he said.

“While Census has invested in summer work programs for many years, the Civic Digital Fellowship is a first-of-its-kind program that focuses on many of the digital skills that are critical to the future needs of our agency,” including data science, software engineering, product management and user-centered design, Meisel said.

Have they found that college students, including those who may not have voted for Donald Trump, have any qualms about working in the federal government under the current administration? Not at all.

“I don’t think what we do is political,” Kuang said. “We’re here to innovate and modernize and bring a new perspective into government.”


Indeed, they’ve learned to separate government from politics, Dodell reflected. “A lot of it is just about delivering services,” she said.

“It’s such a valuable thing to have this experience as a student,” Kuang said.

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