Leading the Field: Victoria Bitzer

A conversation with a Branch Chief within the National Institutes of Health

For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Hispanic and Latinx leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Victoria Bitzer (she/her/ella), the Digital Communications Branch Chief for the Office of Neuroscience Communications and Engagement (ONCE) within the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). NINDS is one of the 27 institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author and not the organization or agency for which they work.

You’re currently leading the digital information strategy at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. What’s a project within that mission that’s keeping you engaged and excited?

There are so many projects I get to be part of and no day is quite the same. I’ve never had a more fascinating and challenging role than I do today at the National Institutes of Health. I get to work with public affairs experts, subject matter experts, program staff, and our information technology experts—so I learn something new every day as it relates to policy, security, infrastructure, and even tech procurement.

Internally, I’ve used the idea that our websites and social channels are the “digital front door to our Institute” to convey the critical role they play in our broader communications ecosystem. Making iterative improvements to our websites’ user experience, information, and functionality are things that excite me every day, particularly as it all contributes to better digital experiences. In that vein, I’ve launched a series of subject matter working groups that partner with my digital and technical teams to tackle various modernization efforts, most of which prioritize content and content strategy. Something I’m particularly proud of recently has been the excitement around our meaningful name change for the web division of our team to the Digital Experience Team. It has been a real opportunity to internalize and convey our values, philosophy, and goals of improved interactions at every digital touchpoint our audiences encounter with us. It is no coincidence that the name change is also a nod to customer experience best practices, key principles we’re looking to adopt further for our digital operations processes and delivery.

Success largely depends on the people involved, people who really care about delivering better information and services to the public and our various research communities. Every day, I ask myself what I could be doing to support my team better—hearing them, resourcing them, and getting them comfortable with a little risk taking, even if it incurs a little failure. 

Success largely depends on the people involved, people who really care about delivering better information and services to the public and our various research communities.

There are a lot of challenges in conveying accurate scientific information online these days. What drew you to this kind of work, and how do you innovate around some of the day-to-day challenges?

I’ve had an interest in public health for a long time and decided to pursue a master’s degree in 2019—I could’ve never imagined how timely that would be given the COVID-19 pandemic that would begin the next year.  I then had the opportunity to do a detail at the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs’ office in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to stand up the first version of the COVID-19 Public Education Campaign website. My team there had a lot of great ideas, including a vaccination uptake map and a number of other innovative elements and integrations that I’m thrilled to see incorporated today.

I then had an opportunity to join NINDS, where I continue to be humbled by the incredible work of our scientific staff and communications officers who can thoughtfully, creatively, and pointedly share information with so many audiences. We know that plain language is supremely important for sharing critical information where we want people to take action—and there are a lot of clever, innovative, and engaging ways to share complex scientific information that is understandable and actionable. 

The most innovative communications are a direct result of diverse professional and personal perspectives that include field and subject matter expertise and life experiences.

The scientific process is always reshaping our understanding of the world. The more we work together to get the right information on the right platforms to the right people at the right time, the more successful we are. Communications innovation includes learning, listening, challenging our assumptions, pivoting, adapting, and staying humble. The most innovative communications are a direct result of diverse professional and personal perspectives that include field and subject matter expertise and life experiences.

If you had to draw out your career path on a chart, would it be a straight line or something more unpredictable? Would your career now surprise a younger version of yourself?

My career has been a winding journey, though all roads lead to Rome, I suppose. I’ve always been passionate about mission-driven work and making a difference in the service of others. I studied print journalism in college and at the time I was looking towards serving as a foreign war correspondent. In looking for journalism jobs, I stumbled upon other communications opportunities, and soon after began public relations work on behalf of federal agencies. This became a pivotal career shift—when I was exposed to “social marketing,” I couldn’t believe that I could be paid reasonably well to work on public information programs that included raising awareness of government benefit programs or educating about healthy behaviors. I had a number of failures along the way, some I will attribute to a lack of consistent mentorship and understanding of the professional world, as I was the first in my immediate family to go to college and had to navigate the U.S. system on my own.

I’ve always benefitted, however, from a deep sense of purpose and drive. This drive to help others is what fuels my public service career now as a federal employee. I am very grateful to give back to the country that has given me so much as an immigrant from South America. This, among many reasons, is why I want to inspire others to join the public sector, particularly in civic tech, and particularly if you are multilingual—we need you!

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out in their journey working for government?

After 10+ years as a public servant, I think I have some thoughtful advice to offer back to people, a lot of it being a reflection in some form of advice that was offered to me. 

First I’ll say that relationships are life’s currency, and affect every aspect of how we approach the world to make things happen. There is a lot you might not know coming into a new agency, so come with humility and learn to give and share space. Understand your privilege, acknowledge the incredible responsibility you have been given, and understand the impact you can make through the decisions you take. At the same time, recognize the work of everyone before you and alongside you that has gotten you to where you are. No one has gotten to where they are purely on their own, or without the support or contributions of others. 

Understand your privilege, acknowledge the incredible responsibility you have been given, and understand the impact you can make through the decisions you take.

Then, once you’ve found your footing, pay it forward. Sign up to become a mentor, or a sponsor to a project. Get involved in moving someone or something forward, even if it’s uncomfortable for you, because discomfort often comes with a lot of growth and a sense of accomplishment. 

If you haven’t yet found where you belong in government, patience and persistence are the mottos I live by. I recently had an opportunity to come speak to U.S. Digital Corps fellows and shared a few tips for professionals entering or transitioning to the public sector, and had the opportunity to collaborate on a piece with one of my NIH colleagues and inspirational leaders, Tori Garten, on attracting underrepresented digital services talent to serve.

What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?

Bringing my full self looks like being trusted to explore ideas, lean on experience, and support others in accomplishing our goals. It’s about feeling like I belong and that my perspective as a Latina is celebrated, not just during Hispanic Heritage Month, but all year—and feeling like this life experience contributes to my agency in a meaningful way. I also do my best to embody the behavior and values I want to see every day, and have often talked about how technical skills are no match for core values, often referred to as “soft skills.”  I am also particularly passionate about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) and tell myself that I am a forever student in everything I touch and lead.

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