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This Week in Civic Tech: Obama’s Innovation Fellowship Gains Republican Support, Accela Crafts Sharing Economy Permitting Tool

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / July 14, 2016
Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, speaks at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conference Health Datapalooza in 2014. Jason Shueh

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Obama’s Innovation Fellowship Gains Republican Support

In a rare act of bipartisanship, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., introduced a bill to protect President Obama’s Presidential Innovations Fellows (PIF), one of the administration’s core IT reforms.

Former U.S. CTO Todd Park founded the program in 2012 as a measure to direct private expertise from technologists, entrepreneurs, policy strategists and change-makers into remedies for national challenges. Since its launch, PIF has produced more than 100 fellows who've come from Google, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Shutterstock, and a number academic and health IT organizations.

McCarthy’s bill, officially introduced on July 7, is known as the “Tested Ability to Leverage Exceptional National Talent” Act of 2016, or TALENT Act for short. It would take the PIF program, that brings innovators into government for a year of service, and resets the fellowships into a time frame ranging from six months to two years — exact times determined upon projects and needs. Other stipulations would require the GSA administrator to appoint a PIF director and to create a PIF advisory board. No limit was set for the number of fellows allowed to join the program.

“This bill codifies provisions establishing the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program to encourage successful entrepreneurs, executives, and innovators to join the government and work in close cooperation with government leaders to create meaningful solutions that can help save lives and taxpayer money, fuel job creation, and significantly improve how the government serves the American people,” the bill’s summary states.

More than anything, though, the goal of the act is to institutionalize PIF in government with bipartisan approval.

The White House has made its own attempts to shield PIF from an incoming administration's possible whitewashing. In August 2015, the president issued an executive order to take PIF out of the White House and place it within the General Services Administration, a department that helps agencies buy services and manage federal property. The administration went a step further in May when it created a new wing at the GSA called the Technology Transformation Service (TTS). In addition to PIF, the TTS houses the federal digital services at 18F and the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. The TTS joins GSA's two other service lines: the Federal Acquisition Service and the Public Buildings Service.

Accela Jumps into the Sharing Economy

The civic tech cloud company Accela is crafting a tool to help Airbnb, Uber and other sharing economy companies connect their user data with city permitting offices. The tech is a response to the seemingly endless policy battles between cities calling for regulation and tech companies seeking freedom to do business.

On July 13, Tech Crunch reported that Accela CEO Maury Blackman had directed teams to build a new kind of permitting solution that would cross reference a company’s user information with city regulatory databases. The solution would, for example, allow a potential Airbnb host to register with the city over a desktop or mobile device. Features of the software-as-a-service platform might include identity verification, and digital document submission and collection tasks.

For Accela’s plan to work, however, it will require more than algorithms or advanced Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Compromise from both parties is needed. Risk-averse regulators may have to unhinge themselves from traditional procedures like paper document submissions to multiple departments; likewise, tech companies may have to relinquish their grip on user data and operating preferences. With the varied types of regulations from the city to city, it’s also probable that any progress will be incremental as Accela works out specific cases, enhances functionality and builds interest with positive use cases. 

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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