Governmental digital: A framework for scalable, sustainable digital government services

GDS Launch (Photo: Paul Clarke)
GDS Launch (Photo: Paul Clarke)

Anything online is digital and, today, everything is online. To use the term ‘digital government’ in many ways is redundant, because whether it’s streamlining our experience with DMV or responding to natural disasters, all public-facing government services must be prioritized going forward through the lens of digital.

Given its nascency, however, for now we must continue to use the phrase ‘digital government services’ to define both informational and transactional online activities, and provide a framework for public sector success into the future.

The practice and ideal machinations of the digital government services movement has emerged as a primary focus for the civic and government technology community. These discussions coincide with recent political changes, as in California, where there is a desire and need for innovation, accompanied by optimism that tech-savvy leaders such as Governor-elect Gavin Newsom likely will actively expedite digital government agendas.

In order to establish a strategic vision, free from past and individual and organizational context and interests, it’s important for us to develop a holistic framework, but also get specific about what optimal digital government services looks like in the context of larger government organizations, such as countries, states and major metropolitan cities with relatively ample resources. It is in this context to which I prescribe this framework.

Context

Present

Most of the digital government services context we have today is from the histories of three organizations:

Each of these organizations were created under different contexts. While all have impacted the public sector landscape positively and immensely, none are a perfect case study for today’s government leader deploying digital in the context of a clean(ish) slate, especially given the benefit of hindsight.

The UK Government Digital Service was borne from proactive, forward-thinking mandate and given the authority to set standards. 18F’s emergence, too, was more proactive, however, it lacks the authority and mandate UK DGS has, and was set up to deliver much like a commercial services firm does, while also developing long-term standards and resources that benefit all federal government agencies. USDS was set up post-Healthcare.gov, and much of its work was reactive, supporting troubled projects, eventually expanding to provide procurement guidance and recruitment vision and execution. Today, it serves as a model for what other federal agencies are executing and ultimately will be phased out, unless it morphs into a different organization. Both 18F and USDS operate as separate entities under different agencies, which causes redundancies but also confusion around a unified digital government leadership.

Future

Building tomorrow’s digital government services framework will entail leveraging lessons learned from these established organizations, taking the best of each, and also employing successful practices from successful open and agile communities at large. It is in this context that we must build the future of digital government services.

Leadership

Digital government services must unequivocally and adamantly be supported and championed at the highest levels of public service, leaving no doubt to all levels of the bureaucracy that this is an executive priority. This leadership should be aided by an executive position that can effectively advocate for and unblock efforts that run counter to or aim to thwart digital government progress. It can take the form of a senior-level staff member, focused on technology and innovation, or a cabinet-level position with a mandate and authority to facilitate organizational evolution conducive to digital government services success.

Core tenets

Digital government services organizations must adopt core tenets, all of which are relevant to and should be inherent in every government organization, be it federal, state or local.

These include:

  • Open standards
  • Privacy
  • Accessibility
  • Human-centered design

Open standards

Open standards includes an emphasis on open source, open data and interoperability. The UK government has taken leadership on this with its Open Standards principles.

Privacy

Privacy includes 100% encryption or, “HTTPS Everywhere” as the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it, on all government websites and applications to protect the personal information of the people using them. The federal government has taken a lead on this, but is still not fully compliant.

Accessibility

Accessibility includes making digital services available to “the greatest number of users possible,” as 18F says. Many governments have established accessibility directives, including California with AB-434, but most are failing in actual execution, and no one is providing true leadership on this front.

Human-centered design

Human-centered design focuses on the end user, creating a seamless, simplified and unified digital interface and experience. The federal government has led on this front to some degree with the U.S. Design System and a gradual adoption across agencies.

Organization

The core organizational components of an effective digital government services strategy incorporate a centralized strategic team that facilitates core standards and open communities of practice, including knowledge sharing and support. The digital government services organization also includes empowered digital product owners and procurement officers within the respective agencies.

Key organizational components:

  • Digital government cooperative
  • Digital product owners (with, ideally, digital teams)
  • Digital procurement officers

Digital government cooperative

A digital government cooperative, much like most open organization governing bodies, facilitates standards, community building, recruitment strategies, training and support for its members, which includes the digital product owners, procurement officers and everyone else whose work is reflected in digital form. This organization operates as a stand-alone executive agency or a top-level entity within an agency that serves a general purpose, such as the U.S. General Services Administration or the California Government Operations Agency.

There has traditionally been an inclination to place these types of initiatives within technology or IT departments, however, digital innovation should never fall within a pure technology organization, as their functions are extremely different and often get lost to the immediate and tactical demands of an IT organization.

Digital product owners

In-agency digital government product owners, as the U.S. Digital Services Playbook states, “has the authority and responsibility to assign tasks and work elements; make business, product, and technical decisions; and be accountable for the success or failure of the overall service. This product owner is ultimately responsible for how well the service meets needs of its users, which is how a service should be evaluated.”

The digital product owner also navigates the respective agency context and work in tandem with the digital government cooperative and the community at large to contribute to and adhere to the established standards.

Digital procurement officers

Digital government procurement officers are knowledgeable of modern digital offerings and how to procure these with little bureaucratic hurdles. They are active in facilitating procurement from all stages of procurement, including specifying needs and ensuring vendors are effectively vetted and contracts are structured to address the deliverables.

Practice areas

Practice areas that encompass the general government community — collaborating online and in-person through recurring open space sessions — are essential in helping to contribute to and implement digital government standards and practices.

Key practice areas include:

  • Accessibility
  • Agile/DevOps
  • Human-centered design
  • Open data
  • Open source
  • Procurement
  • Security

Operations

In modern times, the digital workforce can and must effectively collaborate beyond the physical limits of a building housed in specific, centralized locations and must do so leveraging modern technology tools.

Highly effective and productive digital government services teams operate in:

  • Distributed teams
  • Physical hubs
  • Collaborative software

Distributed teams

Distributed teams enable geographic representation across the governing jurisdiction, but also eliminate a single point of physical failure which, particularly in a states like California, should be taken in serious consideration given the potential for natural disaster.

Physical hubs

Physical hubs provide for the at-times needed, in-person team collaboration moments that may not be accomplished in a distributed environment. A perfect example of this includes the Impact Hub. While some advocate for specific locations where design and technical talent may be centralized, such as the Bay Area, this cultivates a culture of geographic elitism which, addressed below, runs counter to inclusive government services practices.

Collaborative tools

Often, we hear that the technology is less important than people or culture, but digital teams must be enabled with bonafide, collaborative technology to effectively deliver on the mission. Examples of these include Google’s G Suite (documents, spreadsheets, calendars, video), Slack (communications) and Zoom (video conferencing), Trello (project management) and GitHub (project management, rapid prototyping, code sharing).

Language

In the past, particularly with USDS and 18F, there have been terms used to describe digital government services efforts that have caused established bureaucrats to feel supremely inferior, as if they are incapable of innovating or even understanding the problem on their own. While this may be the case in some instances, we must approach digital government services innovation with empathetic and inclusive language that sets a positive tone for faster adoption and long-term success.

Just as important as principles, organizational structure and operations, it’s the words used to describe them that will facilitate faster acceptance and adoption. Language can easily unite or divide, and the digital government services community must choose its words carefully.

Terms that must be avoided and retired:

  • SWAT Team
  • Strike force
  • Elite

Terms that should be incorporated and repeated often:

  • Empathetic
  • Inclusive
  • Collaborative
  • Camaraderie
  • Community
  • Open

Digital forward

Only by taking a holistic, principled, organizational, operational and culture-focused approach to change and innovation will public leaders effectively deliver scalable, sustainable digital government services to the people they serve.

Whether it’s DMV or natural disasters, now more than ever, we need public service leaders who will iterate on the present government services narrative and lead, forward and clear-eyed, into our digital future.

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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