GSA’s Zvenyach: US Digital Corps technologists are already transforming government services

Written by Dave Nyczepir

Technology Transformation Services is already learning from more than 40 fellows in its inaugural US Digital Corps cohort, who bring new experience in fields such as data science and engineering, according to office director Dave Zvenyach.

TTS, which was established within the General Services Administration in 2016onboarded its first former law enforcement officer and, rather ironically, a federal talent recruiting expert among the early-career technologists the exchange placed there and 12 other agencies towards the end of June.

The goal of the US Digital Corps is to place fellows in necessary roles in data science, engineering, product management, design, and cybersecurity in agencies with an existing digital services infrastructure, but this does not does not mean that they are novices.

“There’s a bias or an expectation that these fellows — because it’s called Digital Corps, and they’re portrayed as early-career technologists — won’t be able to deliver a ton of value instantly,” Zvenyach told FedScoop in an interview. “What I’ve seen already is that they’re participating on Slack, they’re already starting to onboard, and they’re really starting to bring different perspectives and backgrounds to the conversation.”

The fellowship represents a second career for some, who may have started in state or local government, while others were in the private sector or recently completed a doctorate.

TTS typically hires by looking at past experience, often in software development with JavaScript and Python, but some have more C and C++ experience than senior managers or were working on hardware issues before applying, a said Zvenyach.

Fellows were certified using the Subject Matter Expert Qualifications Assessment (SMEQA) process that the US Digital Service and other agencies have been refining since 2019. Dozens of SMEs have reviewed more than 1,000 applications and assessed qualifications using the existing Pathways program as a hiring model.

Among the initial 13 agencies accepting Certified Fellows were the General Services Administration, where TTS resides; Office of Management and Budget; Office of Personnel Management; Agency for Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security; Department of Veterans Affairs; and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Participants were expected to have management and budget support to retain fellows on staff after the fellowship ended, if desired.

TTS has placed fellows on its Login.gov, USA.gov, Vote.gov and 10x teams as “full members,” Zvenyach said. Login.gov scales to support more than 40 agencies with product engineering and management gaps within the team.

Elsewhere, fellows are helping VA’s digital experience product team modernize the tools veterans use to access their benefits; CMS Creates Behavioral Health Treatment Mapping Tool; and CISA develop vulnerability, risk and resilience assessments.

“We wanted to focus on programs and teams that needed support,” Zvenyach said.

In addition to co-creating the U.S. Digital Corps curriculum — including technical lectures and government-specific training on federal contracts, funding, and the President’s Management Agenda — fellows receive guidance from a network of mentors. Fellows have one mentor regardless of agency, while mentors can have multiple fellows.

Monitoring fellows’ performance will be a “shared responsibility” between them, the agencies they have been placed with and supervisors at the US Digital Corps, Zvenyach said.

Whether each member remains in government depends on their compatibility.

“My goal is 100%; I would like 100% of these scholars to stay in government,” Zvenyach said. “It’s too early to say what this will realistically look like, but our goal is really to find people who will make careers in public service.”

Part of that involves making sure technologists have the tools they need — like TTS investing in Jupyter Notebooks for its data scientists — to succeed in their jobs.

The US Digital Corps was housed within TTS because it is an intergovernmental initiative capable of recruiting and supporting fellows differently than agencies, given its vast ecosystem of civic technologies, which includes the Presidential Innovation Fellows, Centers of Excellence, 18F and Data.gov team among others, Zvenyach said. While American Rescue Plan Act money funded the first cohort, some agencies plan to reimburse the scholarship.

TTS’ wish is to have a second, larger cohort, with recruitment starting in a month or two, but not at the expense of the peer-agency matching process. Different skills and agencies may be prioritized, but it’s “too early to tell” how, Zvenyach said.

Expect hiring powers to be adjusted or new ones used for the second cohort.

“We couldn’t really target people who were coming out of coding boot camps or people who were coming from community college and didn’t have a master’s degree,” Zvenyach said. “There were certain limitations that we had.”

Ashley C. Reynolds