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Move Carefully and Fix Things: How to be a Tech Innovator in Government Service

Photo of panelists in discussion. From left to right: Divya Ganesan, Administrator Robin Carnahan, Caitlin Gandhi, and Angela Zhao. Photo by Benjamin Weissman

From left to right: Divya Ganesan, Administrator Robin Carnahan, Caitlin Gandhi, and Angela Zhao; Photo by Benjamin Weissman.

For a Silicon Valley culture that prides itself on moving fast and breaking things, the call to slow down to ensure things work well is a jarring assertion. This "move carefully" mantra was the rallying call last month at an event hosted by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, the Haas Center for Public Service, and Stanford in Government. “Tech Talk: Future Technologists in Government” was a candid and uplifting panel discussion between public service leaders in the business of furthering technology to deliver better government. 

The panel included Robin Carnahan, Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Caitlin Gandhi, Director of U.S. Digital Corps within the GSA, and Angela Zhao, Equity through Data Policy Fellow at the City of San José. Divya Ganesan, a rising Senior majoring in Political Science and Computer Science, moderated the discussion. It was a refreshing and lively conversation that left technology and humanities majors alike hopeful about their earning and impact potential in the public sector. 

“You’ll be put in a position, right out of school, to take ownership of your projects.” - Angela Zhao

Stanford technologists know well the perks of taking their skill set to the private sector upon graduation. Those accolades are not lost on Angela Zhao, who received her MS in Computer Science at Stanford and is now the 2023 Haas Center for Public Service Community Impact Fellow. But she was seeking another “perk” fresh out of school that is decidedly not part of the corporate norm. Zhao was quick to celebrate how much ownership government technologists have of their own projects, no matter their place in the department. In a corporate environment, a college grad’s role is typically relegated to “junior” level responsibilities, which often means that their work is many steps removed from the impact they seek. 

Zhao doesn’t have that problem. She works at the City of San José to help City departments implement new initiatives with data science and the privacy team to facilitate the GovAI coalition. Her work leading aspects of this coalition means that from day one, she owned her impact on a project that brings together “over 600 public servants from over 250 local, county, and state governments to promote responsible and purposeful AI in the public sector.” 

Caitlin Gandhi, who directs the U.S. Digital Corps within the GSA, agrees that a newly minted college grad's impact in government service can be immense. U.S. Digital Corps is a two-year fellowship program for early career technologists. The program aims to provide a professional pathway for top technologists who want to use their skills to “help create a more effective, equitable government.” 

That pathway includes compensation that’s comparable to private-sector tech roles. “We are working to remove salary as a barrier to enter public service,” says Gandhi, who was quick to also echo Zhao’s point about the size of impact available to Fellows right out of the gate. “We have had two Fellows who, in their first few months in the Digital Corps, were on a team helping connect Americans to mental and behavioral health resources through as well as through 988 — the new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.” That’s not a junior-level position; that’s a well-compensated role with the highest stakes.   

“Go where your skills are rare.” - Administrator Robin Carnahan

U.S. Digital Corps, the GSA as a whole, and cities like San Jose are an “open field for innovation right now.” Civic entities around the country, especially the Federal Government, are building teams of technologists, including designers, front- and back-end developers, cybersecurity technicians, software developers, and AI specialists. “We’re at a place where our progress has been piecemeal,’ says Gandhi, “where some government teams only have one technology person that is trying to do everything. And now we’re really working on building those full-stack teams.”

That doesn’t mean that grads with coding skills are the only ones needed to fill critical positions. “The [Federal] government is so siloed,” says Carnahan, “we really need people who can synthesize and translate tech speech to layman’s terms.” There are myriad opportunities for tech-enabling skill sets to innovate the “human side of tech” in the public sector. In addition to the technical roles that the U.S. Digital Corps is seeking, technologists are needed to help build ethical frameworks and equitable best practices for how government departments should deploy technology in service to their customers. 

The GSA and state and local governments also need people who are master teachers and coaches, who are able to develop training and learning materials to help government teams understand what kinds of technical platforms will improve (not slow down) their current workflows. There is also a critical need for technology procurement officers who can research and make informed recommendations to departments about external vendors that will provide the best kind of products and services for their work. 

All of these tech-enabling roles represent an opportunity for grads to go where their skill sets are appreciated for their dynamism and rewarded for their rarity. To “go where your skills are rare” is also to go where you will be challenged to amplify the work of your (non-technologist) colleagues. Carnahan says that when you “make them the hero” in your work, you’re earning their trust and you’re best serving the 300 million people who look to government to better their lives. 

“Move carefully and fix things.” - Caitlin Gandhi

To move carefully and fix things is a less familiar invitation to innovate. The problems that young technologists get to solve in government are massive in both scale and consequence. “Making sure that every child has food and someplace to live every day” is a typical charge for government employees. For those who believe that tech’s primary purpose should be to solve, not exacerbate, social problems, moving slowly to ensure zero room for error is the difference between a child having food today or not.

To learn more about how you can be an innovator in tech ethics, check out the  Ethics, Society, and Technology Initiatives at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. 


Elizabeth Bennett writes about social justice and climate change for mission-driven organizations. She lives in southern California with her husband, son, and a menagerie of adopted animals.