Federal Spotlight: Alexis Bonnell
Alexis Bonnell serves as Division Chief: Applied Innovation and Acceleration for the U.S. Global Development Lab, United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Here’s our Federal Spotlight interview:
MC: How long have you been in Federal Service, and what is your main responsibility in your role today?
AB: I started at USAID as a contractor in 2010 as a Senior Advisor to the Chief Operating Officer focused on Business Transformation and Knowledge Management, then I became a direct hire as Chief of Engagement for the Office of Education in our E3 Bureau, then was the Director of the Office of Engagement and Communications for the new U.S. Global Development Lab, and a year ago moved to become the Division Chief for Applied Innovation in the Center for Development Innovation in the U.S. Global Development Lab of USAID. The main focus of my current role is to understand what innovations we have in our Innovation Portfolio, how they are performing, what is most promising, how we can help those innovators overcome their barriers to impact, and finally how do we focus on getting these innovations scaled and adopted in development programming around the world.
MC: What keeps you motivated and passionate to stay in the public sector?
AB: First and foremost, it is the people I work with. I feel so lucky to be in an Agency with the amazing mandate and focus of USAID to truly be changing and saving lives around the world, helping realize the potential of people currently facing extreme poverty. USAID and the Lab are filled with committed, brilliant people, and I think we manage to do amazing work while having fun, being inspired by our work, and consistently pursuing the evolution that we want to see occur in development around the world. Of course, USAID has always had a great history of innovation—what really excites me is seeing the appetite for innovation and evolution not only of USAID but across all of Federal government. There is a vibrant community across government that has been doing great work and has real enthusiasm to see the Federal government optimize the opportunities that the modern age provides us to maximize our impact and the lives of our citizens.
MC: What is one of your biggest achievements?
AB: I think a recent one was the creation of the Global Innovation Exchange, an online system that brought together over 100 partners in our industry and really served as the one of the first totally open and democratic platforms collecting all development innovation, resources, etc. in one place. I think the element that I am most proud of in this project was really focusing on something that coordinated a shared value proposition across so many players, and that we created a vision for and executed the original beta in less than 100 business days. Proving that the government can move quickly and agilely within our constructs and develop something that is truly useful was awesome. Today there are more than 4,500 innovations, over $200 million in resources, and over 10,000 collaborators on the site. But most importantly, it serves as a business intelligence engine around innovation for our entire global development community.
MC: What advice would you share on making public service a career and not a pit stop?
AB: I did not plan a path in civil service—it unfolded as my life’s journey has unfolded. I don’t know if I would have been equally successful in any agency or if USAID was a unique fit for me, full of people, leaders, and initiatives that really let me spread my wings. I continue to prioritize working for and with people that I really respect and who encourage me to learn and grow. I also think it is important to keep your head above water, looking at exciting things happening around me and contributing to them when I could. I think you have to be hungry for your own evolution and growth. Public service can offer amazing ways to grow and evolve, but you have to be looking for them, and really prioritize jumping into the fray with others trying to tackle something new.
Some of the best opportunities I have had came out of things I volunteered or was “voluntold” to do, that on the surface seemed thankless or uninteresting, but when I really delved they had tremendous impact on me. As an example, I was tasked with others in a team to help make us “compliant” with the new telework law in 2010. That role grew into something that I think had a tremendously positive impact on the agency and our employees and helped continue to drive us to be an organization that really celebrates performance and results-oriented management and one that can empower top performers.
MC: What advice would you share with young professionals on entering government?
AB: I have a few thoughts:
- Be ready and willing to roll up your sleeves and help where you can; don’t be “too good” to do the heavy lifting.
- See how you can “give away the win”; make other people’s lives easier and make them look good.
- Under-promise and over-deliver.
- Have fun and “find your family”, meaning find people who share your values who can act as a support and insight system for you.
- Have your bosses’ back and expect them to have yours.
- Learn the system, and make and foster relationships with people at every level of your organization; everyone matters.
- Fight smart, fight for the things you really believe in, but take the time to find common ground so “your fight” becomes “our fight.”
- As you grow, hire people smarter than you, get out of their way, and recognize them when they are doing amazing work.
- Say thank you, and accept thanks graciously.
- Peel the “no” onion, meaning some “no’s” are legislative, some are policy, some are practice, some are ignorance. There is a ton of opportunity “in the no” but you have to be nimble, smile a lot, and have empathy as you navigate the “no.”
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