Transforming digital government

Photo: The White House
Photo: The White House

Earlier this year, 18F released a preliminary report on “what makes modern digital practices ‘stick’ within a government entity.”

The findings provide an excellent overview of what constitutes digital government transformation, challenges and best practices for implementation.

From the report:

Characteristics

  1. People at all levels feel connected to the agency’s mission, have a sense of purpose, and are empowered with the autonomy to act on that purpose.
  2. The agency chooses and manages technology effectively in the service of its larger mission.
  3. The agency is capable of and committed to practicing continuous improvement.

Barriers

  • Extreme technical debt, heavy enough to prevent small engineering teams from choosing their tools and doing rapid, iterative releases.
  • Difficulty concretizing the benefits of transformation. We don’t say quantifying, because that’s the problem: many benefits are clear, but qualitative in nature. This makes it hard to get buy-in for ongoing work.
  • Teams that can’t make project decisions without leadership approval. This costs time and effort for both management and staff, and makes it hard for transformative practices to become the norm.
  • Failure to connect directly to users (whether they’re employees or the public). It’s harder to muster the will to seek out the most impactful practices when you don’t have a picture of the impacted people in your mind.

Best practices

  • Establishing constant feedback loops with users, often created by early, somewhat risky releases. These are powerful drivers of engagement at every possible level of the organization.
  • Building cross-functional teams of substantial duration. Subject matter experts working side by side with technical specialists for months or years rather than weeks, and all being treated as full project team members.
  • Using community organizing techniques to bring staff on board (like monthly meetings, office hours, councils). When it comes down to it, transformation is a long process of getting people on board and supporting them in hard work. This takes non-judgmental spaces to learn, celebrate small and large wins, and get support from teammates and management.
  • Referring to authoritative guidance, like the TechFAR Handbook, FITARA, the Open Data Policy (OMB Memorandum M-13-13), and the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, helps tech-savvy managers make non-technical leadership comfortable allowing experiments in new practices.

Full report: “Best practices in government digital transformation

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and co-founder/CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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