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How Agency Needs Drive Cloud Adoption at Peace Corps

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, Mapping Government’s Journey to the Cloud: 8 Success Stories. The guide includes interviews with federal, state and local officials who have overcome common barriers to cloud adoption, including procurement and security. Download the full guide here to get their insights and tips for success. 

The sweet spot for Heather Schwenk, the Peace Corps’ Volunteer Delivery System Expert, is when the agency’s business and technology teams align and mission needs drive tech adoption — not the other way around.

“Here, the tech team that we work with gets that 100 percent,” said Schwenk, a nearly 14-year veteran at the agency who oversees the entire business process, from the time people apply for volunteer assignments to the time they enter on duty.

“It’s like programming drives budget; budget doesn’t drive programming,” she said. “It’s the same exact model.”

These deeply rooted beliefs set the tone for a major cultural and technological shift in the way the Peace Corps does business, specifically when it comes to volunteer recruitment.

It wasn’t until recently that the agency allowed applicants to apply to specific positions. For the first time, thousands of potential volunteers could decide what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go.Peace Corps tips

In the past, “people believed that you signed up for the Peace Corps, and it maybe wasn’t entirely about applying to the job,” Schwenk said. “That’s where there was this cultural shift,” she said of the agency’s move to make positions visible to applicants. And with that shift came the adoption of new technology solutions to support the change.

For example, the application process used to take eight hours; now it’s roughly an hour long, thanks in part to a more user-friendly interface. Internally, employees no longer have to circulate printed application forms for review. Instead, they can view applicant data directly in the agency’s system, which means more efficiency.

The focus for Schwenk and her colleagues has been aligning the Peace Corps’ business processes with the innovative capabilities that technologies like cloud can offer. In fall 2015, the Peace Corps awarded a contract for an upgrade to its cloud-based recruitment platform. The Software-as-a- Service (SaaS) solution will run in a hybrid cloud, on infrastructure that meets the government’s FedRAMP requirements.

“It’s easy to build systems and processes that work best for us, but at the end of the day, we have to remember that the process works best to find the best volunteers,” Schwenk said. “Sometimes that means tight deadlines, sometimes that means being more transparent, getting more phone calls and questions, but that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to be transparent and build the process to find the best volunteers.”

Today, applicants can filter for the job they want. But when they’re applying, they’re not truly applying to that particular job through the technology. For now, they’re grouped together in a general applicant pool when they apply. That will change in the upgraded cloud-based system.

The technology will also enable the agency to ask applicants job-specific questions. In the future, if someone applies for a forester position in Paraguay, for example, the candidate will be asked if she has a degree in forestry and can speak Spanish.

Another benefit: The application process will be optimized for mobile users. Many applicants use mobile devices as their primary communication tool. To what extent people use their devices to apply for Peace Corps openings isn’t clear, “but we want to have it as mobile-friendly as possible, so people can make their own choices,” Schwenk said.

Her team is also weighing how the agency will use a Facebook-like feature in the system that allows communities of users and Peace Corps employees to communicate and share timely information about volun- teer assignments.

The guiding light for change was a drive to be more innovative and pinpoint how technology could support a more efficient application process that attracts the most qualified and passionate volunteers. For everyone involved in selecting and designing the new cloud-based recruitment system, having the agency’s vision in mind was key.

“Those were the people who we needed as champions,” Schwenk said. “That was who I was looking for. And so we created our team. It was very expansive. We definitely needed them to be talking to their colleagues, making sure people were informed, advising us on the process but also moving forward. Champions are key, at all levels.”

All photos licensed for use under Creative Commons 2.0.
Photo credit: Peace Corps

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