What’s a PIF? We should all be paying attention

The one thing John Paul Farmer didn’t want when he and Todd Park initiated the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program was for the abbreviation PIF to stick.

That turned out to be wishful thinking — and a good thing it was — because PIFs are becoming known, and appreciated, for bringing the culture of civic innovation to Washington. No doubt the government needs it.

The Presidential Innovation Fellows program is overseen by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House, with Farmer, a former senior adviser there, as founder. When the program began in August 2012, 18 PIFs got to work on five projects. In round two in 2013, the program expanded to 43 PIFs working on 10 projects.

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The program is designed to bring cutting-edge innovators from the private sector, nonprofits and academia directly into federal government agencies to innovate, collaborate and make the government work more effectively. PIFs contribute six to 12 months of their time, or “tours of duty,” to their projects. They are chosen through a rigorous application process.

In a town that talks a lot about who’s up and who's down, one thing is clear: PIFs are disrupting a bureaucratic culture and transcending red tape. They bring new ideas to big problems. They are mostly serial risk takers. And they are enthusiastic and fired up to contribute to our country through public service. This mindset is game changing.

According to a Gallup poll released last year, Americans have a historically low level of confidence in the ability of the federal government to solve both domestic and international problems. You could say that the time has never been better for the leadership of PIFs.

At the United States Agency for International Development, Scott Wu, a former Wall Street venture capitalist, is working with the Development Innovation Ventures program. The program is designed to provide investments to new ideas in developing countries and then scale them up once results are proven.

“It’s a great example of leveraging the resources of the public sector with the private sector and nonprofits to solve problems,” he says.

Take another timely example: Health information technology. Adam Dole, a PIF at the Department of Health and Human Services, describes his goal in working on a healthcare-related project, Blue Button, as "liberating data from existing bureaucratic silos to allow patients to be an equal member of the care team." It isn't the sexiest of job descriptions, but he is amped every day to disrupt and solve problems with technology.

"It's about empowering people," he says of Blue Button, which allows patients to take more control over their health and gives all of us access to our health records.

Adam started out at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and is a former entrepreneur-in-residence at the Mayo Clinic, where he was involved in the strategic planning of new healthcare products and services. Now, he's bringing that entrepreneurial mindset and diverse background to government.

PIF Jacqueline Kazil has a similarly varied background. With a past in both journalism and technology, she works on the Disaster Response and Recovery project at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She noted as an example of government innovation that after Hurricane Sandy, FEMA crowdsourced photos taken by citizens of the damage and destruction to assess priorities.

Farmer believes the kind of cross-agency and cross-sector collaboration demonstrated by the Presidential Innovation Fellows is only the beginning. By instilling an entrepreneurial mindset into government decision-making and bringing in the best minds from other sectors, he is hopeful that the long-term results will be more efficiency, fewer hurdles and, eventually, greater faith and trust in government.

Navigating the bureaucratic mazes of the healthcare sector to make life easier? Making smarter government investments? Bringing new ideas into government? Now that's innovation we can get behind. And PIFs are making it happen. We should all be paying attention.