OpenGov Voices: Why every government employee needs a sabbatical


As my wife applied for fellowships after completing her Ph.D., I exclaimed: “There are governments everywhere, baby. Look far and wide for the perfect post-doc!” Earlier this year she accepted an offer at one of the most prestigious medical institutions, meaning we had to move on from our downtown life in Dallas, Texas.

Shahrzad Rizvi headshot
Shahrzad Rizvi, Capital Budget Analyst with the Maryland Department of Budget and Management Office of Capital Budgeting, and former Sunlight Foundation Fellow

I’d invested much of my heart to Dallas by serving the city and county governments, living/working/playing downtown and engaging with the Mayor’s Star Council and Dallas Makerspace. Leaving Dallas wasn’t fun. When considering my move to the Washington, D.C./Baltimore metro area, I wanted to continue public service and gain experience in civic tech and open government.

I’d been following the Sunlight Foundation blog for several years from within government, cheering on as it strengthened FOIA and collected politician’s deleted tweets. When a local policy fellowship appeared on the job board, I applied within hours. When accepted, I saw this role as a “Government Sabbatical.”

Traditionally, sabbaticals are offered for academic researchers who endure the rigors of creating knowledge and are afforded a well-deserved break. Government services can be just as grueling. After helping to replace a 20-year-old “mainframe” court case management system at one of the largest municipal courts in the nation and successfully completing a county budget cycle, I felt a sabbatical was in order.

“I’m on one of those too,” exclaimed Michael Nutter, former Philadelphia mayor, when I said that I’m on a government sabbatical. Currently a What Works Cities senior fellow, Nutter visited Sunlight’s office this summer to encourage young minds to continue the work we do.

The federal government offers leave without pay and the State Department is considering using sabbaticals to retain employees.

Many government employees are attracted to the retirement options that government positions afford. Although with the impending “pension crisis“, government retirement programs aren’t as healthy as they once were. It’s best to view any breaks in service as mini-retirements, a concept popularized by Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Work Week. The idea is that retirement shouldn’t wait until later in life, but that we can take occasional “mini-retirements” in the middle of our lives when we can enjoy them the most.

On my mini-retirement session at the Sunlight Foundation, I was able to exercise my coding chops, research open data policies nationwide, convert policies from PDF to raw text, spearhead Open Data Policies Decoded and learn that the federal government is at the forefront of open legislative data.

Learning about the benefits of Slack and GitHub will improve future government projects I’m tasked with. I leave the Sunlight Foundation inspired, refreshed and ready to continue service in the public interest. With this new capacity, I have a honed technology skill set and vision for accountability that I hope to encourage and inspire transparency from within government.

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