For and with the people: An introduction to government digital service

Photo: UK Government Digital Service
Photo: UK Government Digital Service

As the general public increasingly expects the civic user experience to be as refined as the ones we have with our consumer electronics, digital service delivery has become a priority for governments locally and globally.

This growing demand has ushered in an era of government digital service teams, focused specifically on delivering a better online experience and, as the UK Government Digital Service says, “help government work better for everyone.”

These new organizations include UK Government Digital Service, 18F, U.S. Digital Service, Canadian Digital Service, Argentina’s Gobierno Digital, New Zealand’s Digital.govt.nz, Australian Digital Transformation Agency, France’sEtaLab and Singapore’s Government Digital Service.

At the state and local level, there is San Francisco Digital Services, Boston Digital, Digital New South Wales, NYC Planning Labs, California Child Welfare Digital Services, Digital Services Georgia and Massachusetts Digital Service, to name just a few.

As more governments at every level adopt some form of service delivery with an emphasis on improving the digital experience, it’s helpful to understand the context, history and evolution of some of these, so that future instances can better start and scale with more efficiency and effectiveness than their predecessors.

Defining delivery

While these organizations vary in scope and approach, the overarching objectives are similar. Each is keenly focused on enhancing the public’s online experience with government.

As Canada Chief Information Officer Alex Benay recently wrote:

“The term ‘digital government’ is not a buzzword for flashy new government websites, apps or the end of paperwork. Rather than an exclusively technological transformation, ‘digital government’ presents an opportunity for a cultural and operational shift that is much more than the digitization of government services. It is about cultivating an environment that prioritizes citizens and promotes streamlined, secure service delivery supported by technology. It is about reimagining the service relationship with citizens to remain relevant. To do this, government must build an innovative and agile public service, with modern governance structures that correspond to the new digital landscape.”

Some of these organizations strategically and smartly extend beyond reactive work or proactive service-specific work and invest in deeper resources to address more mundane bureaucratic issues, including streamlining procurement and approval processes, improving recruitment and hiring, streamlining backend processes, incorporating technology open standards, and helping to adopt product management practices. The ones that are empowered to holistically address these issues as a unit are emerging as more unified, scaling their momentum and impact beyond just the standard strategy of tacking on an unenforceable innovation role to the IT department. Of note is that none of the successful ones have emerged from pure technology organizations.

Here’s a survey of how some pitch their offerings.

UK Government Digital Service:

“We help government work better for everyone by leading digital transformation … We help people interact with government and support government to operate more effectively and efficiently.”

18F:

“18F partners with agencies to improve the user experience of government. … We help other government agencies build, buy, and share technology products.”

U.S. Digital Service:

“The United States Digital Service is a startup at The White House, using design and technology to deliver better services to the American people. … We partner leading technologists with dedicated public servants to improve the usability and reliability of our government’s most important digital services.”

San Francisco Digital Services:

“San Francisco Digital Services works with other City departments to improve public services. We use technology to make it easier for people to get things done. … We’re re-thinking how public services are designed, by understanding what our users need and building with an agile approach.”

New South Wales:

“Helping you deliver great government services. … Find the building blocks for creating user-centred digital services, as well as policy, tools and guidance.”

And the most elegant overview from Canadian Digital Service:

“We are focused on delivery: helping government design and build better services.”

The universal government services mantra is simple:

  • provide better online user experiences
  • leverage modern technologies
  • deploy iterative project management practices
  • fix procurement
  • recruit and hire great people

History, modus operandi

Each of these delivery teams have emerged from different contexts, creating less of an evolved path to a service delivery panacea, but ones that represent the respective leadership, politics, priorities and events of their respective times.

Since its 2011 founding, the UK GDS has served as the inspiration for all service teams that have launched since.

Its genesis came from a 2010 report, “Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution,” that advocated for bold recommendations, including a unified digital presence, a designated team with “absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments,” and a “CEO for Digital” in the Cabinet Office with “absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APls) and the power to direct all government online spending.”

In 2013, GDS had 200 employees. Today, it has more than 850 managing delivery, guidance, a marketplace and multiple platforms and products. It has become the blueprint for how government can elegantly execute digital services holistically and sustainably.

In March 2014, 18F emerged from the Obama White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program. 18F’s founding, like GDS, was more proactive, but with little direction, mandate or authority, announcing it would “provide cutting-edge support for our federal partners that reduces cost and improves service.”

In true startup fashion, 18F experimented over time with its value offering, from delivery to consulting, ultimately moving towards the latter, particularly related to procuring digital services.

A key difference with 18F than other digital teams is that its directive is self-sufficiency, which it has yet to achieve. As 18F states on its website, “We are cost-recoverable, which means we don’t receive appropriated funds from Congress and must charge partner agencies for our work.”

18F has provided significant leadership and long-term impact, executing its vision through evergreen work, including comprehensive guides, design standards, open source advocacy and a public operations handbook. This foundational work, which doesn’t get the full credit it deserves, has allowed for exponential momentum around agile, open source, procurement modernization, web best practices to scale and expedite within the federal government, but also beyond.

Today, it is integrated into the U.S. General Service Administration’s Technology Transformation Service, losing some of its startup personality and distinguishable brand, but still provides impactful work to the broader U.S. federal government ecosystem. 18F currently has approximately 120 employees.

Subsequently, several 18F alumni now lead digital service teams elsewhere, including Aaron Snow as CEO of the Canadian Digital Service, and Hillary Hartley as chief digital officer for Ontario province.

The Obama White House established the U.S. Digital Service in August 2014 in response to the mishandled 2013 Healthcare.gov launch. Much of its early work was highly reactive, supporting troubled federal government technology projects.

It now provides more proactive delivery support, but also helps build agency-specific digital teams across the federal government. Like 18F, it has provided some evergreen resources, including the Digital Services Playbook, innovative technology procurement guidance and a fresh approach to brand, culture, recruitment and hiring, but its primary focus is delivery.

USDS currently has approximately 165 members working across federal agencies, including the Departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, and the Small Business Administration.

While both 18F and USDS have complementary offerings and collaborate at times, the lack of a unified purpose and brand or universal mandate and authority differentiates the United States federal government’s approach than that of UK’s, and even most other digital service teams.

The foundation for 18F and USDS was laid through a number of earlier digital initiatives that culminated in the Obama White House releasing its federal government digital strategy, “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People,” in May 2012. This strategy called for many of the themes digital services teams today address as operating principles and priorities.

Many other state and local governments are incrementally starting and building their own digital-focused organizations, navigating challenges such as leadership, funding, resources, internal bureaucratic skepticism and complacency and individual egos.

Because none of these organizations will emerge in a vacuum, they will all have different geneses and evolutions.

As researchers stated in a 2018 State of Digital Transformation report:

“We don’t believe there will be just one model that will work everywhere and at all times — and we fully recognize that the real value units provide isn’t checking boxes on a model, but rather delivering value to citizens.”

Vendor 2.0

Working behind the scenes supporting these efforts is an emerging ecosystem of small vendors focused specifically on public sector digital — CivicActions, Nava, AdHoc, FutureGov, Public Digital and others (disclosure: I have a financial relationship with the former) — many formed and led by early alumni of these government service teams.

Incidentally, Carrie Bishop is a co-founder of FutureGov, the pioneer of boutique digital government services firms, and is now chief digital services officer of SFDS. Also, Mike Bracken, former head of UK GDS is now a partner at Public Digital.

These new vendors, entirely comfortable and adept at working in delivery-driven and open source environments, fully embrace and advocate new procurement experiments and reform efforts.

The Digital Services Coalition, a cooperative of these companies, formed in 2018 to adopt a collaborative, co-opetition culture and model of working with one another to get and grow government business.

As stated in its mission:

“Government missions can profoundly benefit society and individuals. Government digital services transformation has the potential to expand, even multiply, these benefits and provide substantial efficiency gains. The existing contractor ecosystem is ill suited to forward the above. Nimble, forward-leaning, small firms are the ones who can make this a reality. More of the ‘right kind’ of companies and people need to serve the government space. By working together, we can accelerate this larger trend, and bring more value to the government more quickly, all while benefiting the individuals and firms that are part of the community.”

Their faces and logos are invisible to the general public, but these new private sector companies, with their aligned open and agile ethos, are critical to the success of the future of digital government service.

As innovative procurement leaders continue to adopt ways of lowering the barrier to entry and access, we will see increased market share from these companies and even more small businesses entering the government service delivery vendor pool.

Aspirational digital

Estonia’s e-Estonia movement rightfully declares itself “one of the world’s most developed digital societies.”

After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, its sovereignty and bureaucratic clean slate coincided with a new wave of web innovation and set a strong foundation for digital government leapfrogging.

As The New Yorker wrote in 2017 of Estonia’s progress:

“Today, citizens can vote from their laptops and challenge parking tickets from home. They do so through the “once only” policy, which dictates that no single piece of information should be entered twice. Instead of having to “prepare” a loan application, applicants have their data—income, debt, savings—pulled from elsewhere in the system. There’s nothing to fill out in doctors’ waiting rooms, because physicians can access their patients’ medical histories. Estonia’s system is keyed to a chip-I.D. card that reduces typically onerous, integrative processes—such as doing taxes—to quick work. “If a couple in love would like to marry, they still have to visit the government location and express their will,” Andrus Kaarelson, a director at the Estonian Information Systems Authority, says. But, apart from transfers of physical property, such as buying a house, all bureaucratic processes can be done online.”

While Estonia is an anomaly in its origins, one that many governments would appreciate the luxury of, it’s still the digital vision others should aspire to and be inspired by.

One aspect of Estonia to watch is whether it will continue to sustain its innovative momentum or will the clean slate eventually succumb to bureaucratic digital stagnancy over time.

The courage to think bigger

All of these efforts are having an impact, but there is a need for political and administrative government leadership to think different and bigger on digital and push for a more exponential approach that meets, and exceeds, the public’s increased expectations.

California is the latest entrant to venture seriously into government digital services. In January 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a new California Office of Digital Innovation with a startup budget of $36 million and 50 employees. When the official budget is approved this June, we’ll have a better understanding of what resources will be provided to this effort, and how big California, a state that prides itself on technology innovation, will go.

If there’s anyone who can lead with a bold, holistic vision similar to what UK (and Estonia) has done, it’s Newsom, especially given his electoral mandate, established political connections, and positioning as a digital government enabler and champion. For an innovator-branded politician like Newsom, now head of the largest state in America with the fifth largest economy in the world, California can be bold in its approach, eventually make a GDS-like investment in its digital future and show others what can truly be accomplished on this front.

There has been no better opportunity to show the rest of the world, including the U.S. federal government, how a truly effective digital strategy can positively impact the lives of many.

Outside of the UK and Estonia, these efforts are inspiring and true signs of progress, but the next wave of government service delivery evolution needs bold and innovative leadership from politicians and public sector administrators leaders unafraid to take the digital moonshot.

In “Finding the Path to Digital Services at Scale,” Ben McGuire highlights Mexico’s sentiments on this:

“One of the biggest recommendations from the digital services team in Mexico was connecting the digital services program to big, bold, public goals. It can be tempting for new digital teams to keep a low profile as they build relationships and notch small internal victories. But the strength of the organization and its sustainability in the long term will partially depend on its ability to create excitement and political wins. Make digital transformation aspirational, not just a collection of workaday best practices, and you can capture the imagination of public servants as well as citizens.”

And, as e-Estonia says on its website:

“When Estonia started building our information society about two decades ago, there was no digital data being collected about our citizens. The general population did not have the internet or even devices with which to use it. It took great courage to invest in IT solutions and take the information technology route.”

In time, we’ll see what government leaders have that same digital courage — to succeed and fail — and encourage and empathize with others internally to do the same.

‘It’s about the people’

While the various iterations of these teams have different directives, histories and personalities, there’s a camaraderie of passion, purpose and sense of immediacy for civic change that unites everyone involved with the government digital service delivery community.

Hillary Hartley emphasized this repeatedly when announcing Ontario’s digital action plan:

Our goal is to deliver a consistent, inclusive and delightful online experience across the whole of government. These are the guiding principles that drive our work, and should be the ‘North Star’ for any team driving digital change in their ministry:

People are at the centre of service and policy design, actively participating in government program development by telling us what they need and will use

People have a common way to identify who they are when they interact with us online through a single digital identity across government

People don’t have to inform multiple ministries every time they move or change information —government uses a ‘tell us once’ approach to data and information

People have an easier time completing a task with government because common transactional elements are in place for all online services (e.g., payments, notifications, etc.), and designed to be interchangeable and built with open standards

People can track the progress we’re making because open performance metrics are available online for all services (e.g., UK Government Digital Service Performance)

While the delivery is digital and technology is foundational, the mantra for this community is the end users — the people — both internal and external.

When the universal driver is an emphatic focus on the user, the distractions — politics, bureaucratic skepticism and complacency, egos — all become tertiary for leaders and practitioners truly acting in the interest of the people they serve.

As this pithy 2017 GDS presentation slide says:

Digital is not about technology. It’s about people.

Photo: UK Government Digital Service
Photo: UK Government Digital Service


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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