The Biden administration’s recent announcement of a new U.S. Digital Corps, a two-year fellowship that creates pathways for talented young technologists to develop careers in public service, is a welcome workforce innovation built on a long American tradition of public service. The ambition for the program as it launches is to meet today’s critical needs, and we hope the program will expand to match the full potential that technology offers for the greater good.
Public service in the U.S. was critically shaped in a moment not unlike the one we’re living through now. The Civilian Conservation Corps was initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, providing work and sustenance for 3 million young men during the Great Depression. It solidified the outdoors and national parks as core elements of America’s national identity. Petitioning Congress to establish the program, FDR wrote: “I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”
America’s heritage as the global superpower in technology development, and the need to more evenly distribute these benefits, present a similar opportunity for the U.S. Digital Corps.
President Lyndon B. Johnson created VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a National Teacher Corps, the Job Corps, and University Year of Action as part of the “War on Poverty.” Johnson also established the White House Fellows program. Driven by his conviction that “a genuinely free society cannot be a spectator society,” the White House Fellows program was designed to attract promising individuals from outside Washington to contribute to the public good.
As recent Congressional hearings made painfully clear, our political leaders are not equipped to oversee the technology transformation now underway. But they could be — supported by a class of trained, committed technologists.
Many organizations have helped lay the foundations for technologists in the public interest. Code for America helps students and professionals, especially young people of color, to build skills and confidence in coding. But when they graduate, the natural path is towards a large technology company. There is no simple way for them to build and use those skills in the public good.
Building on the legacy of Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson, the new U.S. Digital Corps is an important step toward strengthening our national capacity to leverage technology for public good and to build a world-class public technology workforce for the future. They are recruiting software engineers, data scientists, and experts in design, cybersecurity, and other critical technology fields — and creating a pathway to use these critical skills in pursuit of solutions to public challenges — from logistics and infrastructure in critical food support services to sustaining the direct delivery of government benefits. We hope to see significant diversity in the ranks of the new program. They could be recent college graduates or young digital-native geniuses who learned to code watching Khan Academy videos on their phone. Many should be women and young people of color.
While the initial program will focus on placing technologists in five agencies — the GSA, Veterans Affairs, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — we need not limit the possibilities of where and how this talent can be deployed. The program can be nurtured at the federal level and expanded to create opportunity at all levels of government. A Digital Corps can work alongside the superintendent of a school district to identify the sources of under-achievement. With a small-town mayor to support and enable small businesses. With a Congressperson to understand the decision-making implications of artificial intelligence, and the regulatory requirements. They should be in classrooms, training the next generation of digital citizens.
What outcomes might we expect from the U.S. Digital Corps? Greater data science, AI, and technology capacity in public service organizations. Better use of existing data to solve persistent problems. More informed and effective government tech, AI, and data policy. Broader access to technology skills and tools.
Philanthropy has a clear role to play. The White House Fellows program was the brainchild of John W. Gardner, then President of the Carnegie Corporation. The Biden administration, in partnership with philanthropic institutions, can leverage national service of this kind as an opportunity to build a next generation of technology leadership talent. As with all previous national service efforts, this element of the U.S. Digital Corps will rely on highly integrated collaboration among a wide range of stakeholders across government, private enterprise, philanthropy, and community leadership.
After their Peace Corps or AmeriCorps year, many fellows go on to consulting firms, law school, or major corporations. Announcing the program, President Johnson requested that fellows “repay [the] privilege” of the fellowship by “continuing to work as private citizens on their public agendas.” Public service shapes the mindsets and mental models of service alumni by providing them with a broader set of experiences and a deeper understanding of the American experience.
We need these diverse perspectives in our technology companies and boardrooms. Imagine the difference 1,000 Digital Corps graduates could make in Silicon Valley and beyond. Imagine the useful products that will be created, the innovative businesses founded, the new populations served as we bring together technical expertise with social purpose, grounded in the stories of communities across this country. This Digital Corps could serve as a shining guidepost on our pathway to a human centered, digitally enabled future for America.
Vilas Dhar is President of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a philanthropy advancing artificial intelligence (AI) and data solutions to create a thriving, equitable, and sustainable future for all. Mr. Dhar also serves as a Trustee of the Christensen Fund and is a Senior Fellow at the Berggruen Institute. He holds a J.D. from NYU School of Law, a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and dual bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Illinois.