Technology experts want the incoming Biden administration to create a two-year fellowship letting early-career talent work at federal agencies.
The so-called Digital Corps would improve agencies’ IT service delivery, including pandemic-related services while offering fellows senior leader mentors, skills development and substantial federal loan forgiveness.
None of the government’s IT talent programs focus on young technologists, and if successful the Digital Corps will compete to recruit thousands of recent graduates annually across technical fields.
“The work of civic tech and government modernization is often described as a relay race,” said Nick Sinai, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration and co-author of the Day One Project proposal. “And a Digital Corps would allow a new generation of technologists to join in the effort, with many technologists likely to stay in government even after their fellowship period ends if Coding it Forward’s experience is any indication.”
The nonprofit Coding it Forward already runs the Civic Digital Fellowship, a cohort-based program for collegiate technologists that has placed more than 200 of them at 11 agencies out of upward of 3,000 applicants. Coding it Forward’s 2020 cohort saw 34% of students stay with their agencies part or full time following the fellowship.
Only about one-fifth of the federal tech workforce is younger than 40 years old. At departments like Veterans Affairs, less than 1% of its approximately 8,000 IT workers are under 30 years old and almost 17% more than 60.
Meanwhile, about 65,000 computer science and 331,000 STEM majors graduate college annually.
Fellows in the Digital Corps would rotate agencies they’re matched with at least once based on IT, cybersecurity, product management, design, program management, and acquisition needs.
“The federal government needs to own the federal IT talent problem,” reads the proposal. “A federal program office, similar to [Presidential Management Fellows] or [Presidential Innovation Fellows], provides advantages of scale and permanence and signals importance to the rest of the federal civil service.”
A nonprofit could also administer the Digital Corps though.
The Biden administration would need to form a program office at the General Services Administration or Office of Personnel Management and, over the subsequent year, recruit agency partners, develop an onboarding and training program, establish “high-impact” project placements with mentors and rotations, design a selection process, and work with OPM on retainment, according to the proposal.
Ideally, the first cohort would start in fall 2021 once referral partners and marketing strategy are in place ensuring diversity and inclusion, according to the proposal.
Fellows are less expensive than retiring federal IT employees and will make the government more efficient — a return on investment.
Legislation isn’t needed to start the Digital Corps, but it would “significantly accelerate it” and be required for loan forgiveness, according to the proposal.
The program office would consist of a small team and grow to up to 10 full-time employees, placing the budget in the low, single-digit millions annually. And host agencies would be responsible for fellows’ costs to the tune of $100,000 to $150,000 per fellow.
“The Biden-Harris administration, focused on COVID, the economy, racial justice, and climate, will need Generation Z to scrub in,” said Chris Kuang, co-founder of Coding it Forward and co-author of the proposal. “I’m hopeful they will be excited about the Digital Corps idea, as a way to continue to build a federal workforce that looks like America.”