Rethinking personas in government

National Archives Digital Personas

Source: U.S. National Archives

Personas are an important tool used in human-centered design to help a service provider better understand the needs of the intended users.

Rather than basing service design on whimsical assumptions, personas aim to keep the focus on specific user types and their respective needs so that their particular tasks or problems can be effectively addressed and resolved in the context of real people needs.

Personas can and should be developed for any government service used by the public, from digital to in-person experiences, whether it’s an information-oriented website or application process. They are a fundamental component of human-centered public service design.

As 18F explains when describing the importance of personas, they “ground design in reality by forcing us to consider the goals, behaviors, and pain points of the people affected by our design decisions. Unlike marketing personas based on demographics or marketability, design personas describe how someone accomplishes goals.”

According to Usability.gov, effective personas:

  • Represent a major user group for your website
  • Express and focus on the major needs and expectations of the most important user groups
  • Give a clear picture of the user’s expectations and how they’re likely to use the site
  • Aid in uncovering universal features and functionality
  • Describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values

Also from Usability.gov, benefits of personas include:

  • Stakeholders and leaders evaluate new site feature ideas
  • Information architects develop informed wireframes, interface behaviors, and labeling
  • Designers create the overall look and feel of the website
  • System engineers/developers decide which approaches to take based on user behaviors
  • Copy writers ensure site content is written to the appropriate audiences

Government agencies including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Government of New Zealand and others rely on personas as part of an increasingly growing human-centered public service design movement.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s must-read book, “Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech,” brought to light for me the unintended consequenses of traditional aspects of personas — photo, gender, age, hometown — how these can cause bias or confusion for service designers, and why they should be eliminated from the practice, particularly within the public sector.

In “Technically Wrong,” Wachter-Boettcher shares an anecdote of working with a client, and how the persona process they went through caused her to rethink these traditional components. At one point, one person suggested the CEO persona, a “fortyish black woman,” wasn’t realistic in their particular industry, while another person had a problem with one that described a “divorced black woman in a low-level job.”

Wachter-Boettcher writes:

But what they missed — because, I recognize now, our personas encouraged them to miss it — was that demographics weren’t the point. Differing motivations and challenges were the real drivers behind what these people wanted and how they interacted with the organization.

We thought adding photos, genders, ages, and hometowns would give our personas a more realistic feel. And they did–just not the way we intended. Rather than helping folks connect with these people, the personas encouraged the team to assume that demographic information drove motivations–that, say, young women tended to be highly engaged, so they should produce content targeted at young women.

Thankfully, our clients’ disagreement over the right way to present race turned into a rethinking of our whole approach. Pretty soon, we’d removed all the stock photos and replaced them with icons of people working–giving presentations, sitting nose-deep in research materials, that sort of thing.

I haven’t attached a photo to a persona since.

Sunlight Foundation led an excercise in open data personas with several cities and released an open data user personas spreadsheet in May. One of the participating cities, Downey, Calif., adopted an approach similar to Wachter-Boettcher’s (though still retaining age, hometown) that focused less on demographics, but more on user type and task.


Resident problem-solving (low-medium community impact, medium-high data skills): This person has a personal goal that they want to achieve, whether it’s improving the local ecological environment or getting a bike lane built in their neighborhood. They generally have a small-scale project or goal in mind, but they need information to make their case.

Effective use of personas must be taken seriously when designing truly inclusive public services. As more government leaders adopt human-centered practices into public sector design thinking processes, it’s important to hold deep focus on the intended objective of the end user.

Ultimately, practices such as empathy mapping, quantitative data reviews and engaging with real users are critical, however, simple elimination of traditional demographic indicators while creating personas could go a long way towards government best serving the public at large.

Serving California: Angie Quirarte

Photo: Angie Quirarte

Photo: Angie Quirarte

Angie Quirarte is a behind-the-scenes hero for the state of California, leading on issues such as public sector workforce recruitment and retention, public data, creating a user-friendly government, improving  internal government processes and more.

Let’s start with your personal story. How did you get to where you are today?

I grew up in humble beginnings and benefited from public services that I now work on to improve.

The morning of September 11, 2001 I was at the Mexican border with my parents and two younger brothers. The uncertainty of the promised American Dream was worth the risk of leaving our lives and family behind. I never imagined myself working in government; but now that I am here, I realize that this is where you can honestly make a difference.

I found my way to public service through the Capital Fellows Program as an Executive Fellow in 2013 after graduating from UCSB. As an Executive Fellow I was exposed to the highest levels of state government and worked on policy issues that strive to make government better.

I didn’t think I’d stay in Sacramento after the fellowship, but the work and the mission made me fall in love with public service.

What is your role with the state of California, and what are you working on?

I was recently promoted as the new Assistant Secretary for Digital Engagement at the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps). The Agency oversees the departments with functions that make government run, including technology, procurement, and the state civil service workforce.

Within the Innovation and Accountability team at GovOps, I primarily work on policy and pilot programs that help create tomorrow’s government today by delivering better digital services, promoting the use of data to drive decision-making, and putting Californians and users at the center when designing technology projects meant to serve them.

Over the last few years I have focused on building and sustaining the open data program for the state and most recently helped coordinate the creation of the new Department of Tax and Fee Administration within a span of six weeks.

My role is to identify pockets of innovation, pilot, implement and iterate!

What’s the state of open data in California and what can we expect in the future?

Open data has slowly evolved at the state level. When I first started no one knew what open data was or why it was important. The world was fastly publishing data and I was working on steering the state in the same direction.

As I learned more about our departments and what other governments were doing, I realized that the important thing wasn’t how many datasets we could publish. What matters is the quality of the data and what one does with it.

With this in mind we highly encourage and guide that departments that publish data onto data.ca.gov must also have civic engagement. This not only validates the value of the data, but also creates a collaborative environment where government can partner with others to solve common problems.

I hope to apply more of this for the future of open data in California. We have to democratize the access of data to the people affected by programs that aren’t using it to drive positive change.

Can you share more about NxtGov and why it matters?

NxtGov is a network of public servants and partners that know government has the potential to work better for its people.

I founded NxtGov to bring pride into the profession of public service and recruit the next generation of government leaders. We provide a safe space for change agents that want to connect with others and provide professional development opportunities and community engagement events. We consult government agencies on things they should consider when recruiting and training the next generation workforce and actively coach students on the benefits of working for the state and recruit and onboard them into the state workforce.

NxtGov matters because we break the silos of government and empower our members to become change agents in their departments. We make a difference by identifying key issues affecting our workforce now and bringing decision makers to the table to address the problems as the arise.

Can you share more about the Eureka Institute and why it matters?

The Eureka Institute is a hub of the Innovation and Accountability team within GovOps.

We established the Eureka Institute to make sure that government has a space to constantly innovate. Our focus lies on innovating government by developing programs, pilots, training and tools that develop our people, improve our processes, and leverage our technology to drive better program outcomes.

Within Eureka we have the CA Statewide Leadership Academy, the CA Lean Academy, and CalData which includes the open data program. These programs are changing the way the departments operate and that matters because the Eureka Institute allows government to adapt to a changing world.

While most people would think that innovation comes from fancy technology and robots, I’ve come to learn that innovation is just another word for adaptation. Government bureaucracies must adapt their business operations in a changing world so that people can work collaboratively and leverage tools to better prepare for the government of the future.  

Who are your government heroes?

I am surrounded by many individuals at all levels who inspire me on a daily basis.

Working in public service you encounter people of all backgrounds, and I have a long list of people I’d love to recognize, but one of the most influential heroines is my boss and GovOps Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer. She was recently named as one of Governing’s Public Official of the Year, and she deserves the recognition. I’ve been fortunate to witness many leadership styles over the last few years, and she stands out for her kindness and ability to dive in. I strive to learn from her leadership and kind demeanor. Marybel constantly reminds us that we are here to serve the public.

How can others connect with you?

A few ways to fix a government

IBM Research Manager Charity Wayua’s “A few ways to fix a government” talk is an inspirational example of how government (and its partners) can — when tasked with goals and measurable results — leverage user and data analytics research to successfully create better results for those it serves.

It also accentuates the importance of empathy during the government transformation process.

In 2014, Kenya’s president tasked Wayua’s team with helping the country achieve a top 50 ranking in the the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index. At that time, it was 136 out of 189, however, three years later, Kenya nows ranks 92. For two years in a row, the country has ranked as one of the top three global reformers in the world.

Wayua, who leads IBM’s public sector research team in Kenya, shares insights into their process with an empathic and aspirational tone towards changing the way government works.


“But when we dug deeper, we didn’t find corruption in the classic sense: slimy gangsters lurking in the darkness, waiting to grease the palms of their friends. What we found was an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Our government was sick, because government employees felt helpless. They felt that they were not empowered to drive change. And when people feel stuck and helpless, they stop seeing their role in a bigger system. They start to think the work they do doesn’t matter in driving change. And when that happens, things slow down, fall through the cracks and inefficiencies flourish.”

“Now, guess what we started to see? A coalition of government employees who are excited and ready to drive change, began to grow and form. And together we started to implement changes that impacted the service delivery of our country.”

“It’s easy in this political and global economy to want to give up when we think about transforming government. We can easily resign to the fact or to the thinking that government is too inefficient, too corrupt, unfixable. We might even rarely get some key government responsibilities to other sectors, to Band-Aid solutions, or to just give up and feel helpless. But just because a system is sick doesn’t mean it’s dying. We cannot afford to give up when it comes to the challenges of fixing our governments. In the end, what really makes a government healthy is when healthy cells — that’s you and I — get to the ground, roll up our sleeves, refuse to be helpless and believe that sometimes, all it takes is for us to create some space for healthy cells to grow and thrive.”

The talk was given during TED@IBM, held November 2016, in San Francisco. More background on the project at the IBM Research blog.


Telling Detroit’s stories

Photo courtesy of Aaron Foley

Earlier this year, I visited Detroit for the first time, spending a quick 48 hours in downtown and areas such as the Artist Village, and local businesses Motorcity Java House, Good Cakes and Bakes and Artesian Farms.

I quickly fell in love with Detroit, the energy and sense of local pride, but felt I didn’t get the full story, and left wanting to spend more time taking it all in, hearing more about its history and people and future.

Aaron Foley is Detroit’s first chief storyteller, appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan in April 2017, to help the city go beyond formalized bureaucratic communications and public relations and share the stories that don’t always get heard.

A Detroit native, he is the author of “How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass” and former editor of BLAC Detroit magazine.

Aaron shares his personal story, Detroit’s and why a role such as his is important for the city.

Let’s start with your personal Detroit story.

It really doesn’t start with me, it starts with my elders. I come from a very Southern family who migrated to Detroit like thousands of other black southerners who came to the Midwest and northern cities to work in the factories. My great-grandmother raised three children in the city’s North End and later the east side of the city. My grandfather grew up to get his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and worked in health-care management in various capacities in Lansing, the state’s capital, and here in Detroit. My mother was a longtime reporter and editor at the Michigan Chronicle, a Detroit-based black weekly newspaper. They (and countless others, to be sure) were of greatest influence to me, because of their passion for Detroit and Detroiters. I grew up on the west side being proud of who I am and where I’m from, but when I went to college at Michigan State University, I found myself having to constantly defend critics of the city who were misunderstood about what Detroit was about. I heard all the stereotypes you could ever hear about an urban environment, but no one knew about the Detroit many of us know and love. So I’ve made it my mission to educate people about what it’s like here, something I’ve done as a journalist for many years.

What is your role as the city’s first chief storyteller?

I oversee a multi-platform initiative where we gather stories and information from all across the city under an umbrella we’re calling The Neighborhoods. We believe the neighborhoods — there are more than 200 spread out across 140-ish square miles — are the spirit of Detroit, and we’re committed to telling the stories of who lives here. There’s definitely an information gap about what people know about what’s happening in downtown Detroit and what people don’t know about what’s happening in the more residential areas. It’s my task to fill in that gap with news and feature stories on our website, TheNeighborhoods.org, and our cable channel for which I produce content.

How did this role transpire?

It’s something Mayor Duggan had been thinking about for a few years but didn’t fully realize until now. It’s something new for our city government, where we can utilize one of our cable channels and maximize it to its full potential, but also deliver content in a new way through our website.

Why is this important, for Detroit and other cities who might need a role like yours?

It’s important because I think there’s an opportunity here for people across to Detroit to see that not only can their voices be heard, but that the City of Detroit is making sure that their voices are heard. It’s another form of validation, but it’s a different form of validation beyond providing basic city services. All Cities have an opportunity like this, to really show that residents matter.

When you announced your new role, you said Detroit’s narrative is getting lost in translation? What’s the Detroit story we typically don’t hear?

We typically don’t always hear about residents who stayed in Detroit over the last decade or so. It’s no secret that the city has suffered a massive population loss, but for those of us that love the city so much, when do we ever hear from them? This is a way (but to be clear, not the only way) of showing “hey, thank you for loving Detroit enough. We’re going to do our best in return.”

Who is your local hero, the one person that is the embodiment of Detroit and why?

I’d have to say my late grandfather, Dr. Harvey Day. He beat all the odds — coming up from rural, segregated Alabama up here to the North End. When he was in high school, he helped charter the school’s first National Honor Society at (now-defunct) Northern High. He graduated early, went to the Army, came back and decided he wanted to be a nurse, but Wayne State University at the time didn’t believe a black man could be one. He broke that barrier, and then went on to co-found a scholarship for nursing students a year later. And he didn’t stop there. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and went on to turn around a troubled health system, then went on to work for the State of Michigan’s health department. After leaving the State, he co-founded a pharmacy benefit management corporation, and one of his last major career accomplishments before his passing was protecting the benefits of retired Detroit police officers that would have been lost after the city’s bankruptcy. It’s his level of commitment to Detroiters that I hope to aspire to.

I’m in Detroit for 24 hours. What’s the ‘Aaron Foley Tour?’

Where to begin? I love Mexican food, so I would start at Taqueria el Rey or El Camino Real. Then I’d hit up the Detroit Institute of Arts (there’s a massive local hip-hop exhibit on display there now), and maybe a quick tour of some of Detroit’s most architecturally distinct neighborhoods like Indian Village or Palmer Woods. Some of the best food for dinner is takeout; maybe hit up Uptown BBQ or Asian Corned Beef, and take it with you to Belle Isle and watch the sun set over the river. If you don’t want to get it to go, I suggest Chartreuse for dinner and cocktails.

How can others connect with you, what you’re doing and the city of Detroit?

Pretty easy. I’m all over Twitter (@aaronkfoley), or you can email me at FoleyA@detroitmi.gov. To see the stories we’ve been telling, visit TheNeighborhoods.org.


How to be a ‘Start-Up City’

Start-Up CityFormer Chicago and District of Columbia transportation head Gabe Klein highlights eight lessons leaders should follow when building innovative approaches to better cities in his book “Start-Up City.”

These include accepting failure, managing by metrics, budgeting creatively, always believe there’s a way, focus (aggressively) on marketing, branding and communications, cultivate public-private relationships, plan for external disruption and how to address them when they arise.

He also addresses the importance of regulatory hacking for disruptive entrepreneurial ventures.

Much of the anecdotes are transportation-heavy, leaning on Klein’s background, and at times it reads like a personal pitch for him to be the next U.S. Department of Transportation secretary (he should be), but it’s still a great playbook that encapsulates how to unify a team, change expectations and, as he says, “get sh*t done.”

Key quote:

I have written this book to inspire the next generation of “public entrepreneurship,” a start-up paced energy within the public sector, brought about by leveraging the immense resources at its disposal. At the same time, we need corporate America, and start-up America, to embrace “social enterprise,” working for the common good, as their primary objective versus external shareholder wealth. Combining both of these into “social entrepreneurship” allows us to move beyond public and private silos and focus on using our collective energy to solve the world’s problems, regardless of your vantage point or chosen profession at the moment. To be successful in business in cities today, you need to align your goals and values as much as possible with those of city government and citizens as opposed to with profit alone. Such entrepreneurship has the potential to engender the next level of public-private partnership and give rise to new models of shared financial reward working in the interest of the greater good.

Listen to Klein’s interview with ELGL on the GovLove podcast:

“Start-Up City” on Amazon

California seeks chief data officer

California State Capitol Building (Photo: Jeff Turner)

California State Capitol Building (Photo: Jeff Turner)

The state of California is looking for a chief data officer to “promote the availability and use of data in state government.”

The position resides within California Government Operations Agency and will report directly to GovOps Secretary Marybel Batjer.

From GovOps:

This is a Governor’s appointment and review and assessment of applicants will be handled by the Governor’s appointments office. All questions should be referred to the appointments office.

How to apply:

The actual process of applying involves going to the appointments page at gov.ca.gov, and at the bottom of the window, clicking on the “Begin Application” button. At Question #3, “Positions Sought,” scroll to the Gov Ops Agency section, where the position is listed at Gov Ops Agency, Chief Data Officer.

Position description:

Reporting to the Agency Secretary, the Chief Data Officer will have statewide responsibility for three key initiatives based on data collected in the normal course of state business to improve transparency, efficiency and accountability in state operations.

These initiatives are:

  • Developing the statewide open data portal and related governance and policy on standards, storage and privacy, as well as a statewide open data strategic plan and programs to promote civic engagement and innovation.
  • Fostering and promoting a culture of data use by enabling and encouraging departments to share data to collaborate on common issues and related programs.
  • Employing and analyzing operational data to improve program performance.

The Chief Data Officer is the primary steward of the data portal for the state’s public data, which enables public access to data in a variety of formats. The CDO also is responsible for working with state boards, departments and offices to ensure that state data is accessible through the portal. The CDO oversees development of the standards and structure to support these efforts, as well as incorporation of the state’s geo-portal, in consultation with the Department of Technology, into the statewide open data portal. The Chief Data Officer will maintain and expand the state’s data inventory and establish procedures for adding new data sets and regularly updating existing data sets.

The Chief Data Officer will promote opportunities to demonstrate the value of data in decision making; support and encourage events to encourage public use of open data for innovation, and support and encourage activities to enhance collaboration among departments and agencies through shared data.

Desired Skills and Experience:

  • Well-versed in the principles of open data, open government and Government 2.0.
  • Understanding of state government processes and practices (legislative process, budget process, etc.).
  • Technically knowledgeable, with some familiarity with using and building software applications that employ open data.
  • Strong communicator with internal and external stakeholders on deeper technical issues.
  • Understanding of different of open data formats and the pros & cons of different data formats.
  • Understanding of APIs, GIS systems and mapping concepts.
  • Familiarity with different options for open data portals (both commercial & open source).
  • Understanding of process reengineering.
  • Understanding and experience in change management, organizational performance measurement and organizational performance management.
  • Understanding of big data analysis techniques and their application in government setting.
  • Experience in quantitative analysis.

Ideal qualities:

  • Awareness of and experience with open data tools, such as those available through GitHub, and a variety of different data storage technologies.
  • Understanding of specific areas of state activity that are data intensive – such as energy and water regulation, health, public safety, etc.
  • Excellent writing and public speaking skills.

Insights from federal digital design leaders

U.S. Digital Service

Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane have been on a roll lately featuring federal government design leaders on their Responsive Web Design Podcast.

The first episode, with U.S. Digital Service Designer Mollie Ruskin and Lead Front End Designer Julia Elman sharing insights into their design process and prototyping tools (OmniGraffle, Sketch, GitHub) and building the U.S. Web Design Standards, has excellent insights for those focused on this aspect of the civic experience.

Favorite quote from Mollie:

“I think that one thing that you have to just come to terms with in doing a project like this is that there are so many moving pieces and it’s a lot to keep track of all at the same time, and just to sort of like take a meditative, reasoned approach to that because it can be a daunting amount. I had been given that advice before I started, and it was about halfway through that I felt the zen of all of the pieces moving and realized that that was part of the beauty of doing this work, is that by us taking on this complex important problem, we were going to be making it easier for others moving forward. So, I would just encourage a can-do attitude and plow through those times where you feel like you’re building seventeen things all at once, because you will be.”

RWD has also featured designers from Vets.gov, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Department of State.

Say hello to ProudCity


Today, I’m excited to announce a new civic startup, ProudCity, founded by me and three others, committed to making it easier for cities to stand up and manage government digital services.

Increasingly, as more and more of us access government via the web, our perceptions and expectations will be determined by the digital government experience. In fact, a 2015 Accenture report found that 86% of respondents “want to maintain or increase their digital interaction with government.”

According to the report, when citizens were asked “Which of the following would change positively if government improved digital services?,” they responded:

  • “My belief that government is forward looking” (73%)
  • “My overall satisfaction with government” (72%)
  • “My willingness to engage with government” (72%)
  • “My belief that government is efficient and effective” (70%)
  • “My confidence and trust in government” (62%)

Accenture’s findings also emphasized the importance of the “basic” website:

“Citizens place the highest priority on ‘the basics’ of a quality digital experience: definitive answers to questions, assurance of privacy and security, and functionality typical of commercial websites”

The city website is more than just a digital interface. It’s the public face of increasing confidence, trust and satisfaction in government, and we look forward to playing a key role in helping with this and scaling municipal innovation, one city at a time.

Read our launch blog post on why we started ProudCity, our principles and find your city demo to learn how you can launch your free beta test site. If you have questions, or want to discuss how ProudCity can help your city, please feel free to email me at luke@proudcity.com.

Say hello to ProudCity.

9 reasons why Vets.gov is the future of federal government websites

Source: Vets.gov

Source: Vets.gov

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a beta version of Vets.gov, and it’s the future of federal government digital development.

Here’s why:


Gone are the carousels, clunky blocks of information and seemingly self-serving updates on what the agency secretary is doing.

Instead, the user interface is focused on its core customer needs. There are limited graphics and calls to action, and the homepage especially shows discipline and confidence in its restraint, focusing on two user stories and popular, behavior-driven “Quick Links.”


This says it all:

“This site is a work in progress. We’re designing in the open.”

Secretary Robert McDonald explains why the agency is designing in beta. More on VA’s approach to beta and development methodology.


18F initiated HTTPS by default late last year, and this is important because it offers visitors the guarantee of a secure and private connection.

You can read more about HTTPS and why it’s important for government to adopt here, here, here, here and here.

No navigation

This is a bold and welcome move. No navigation menu and a focus on search and strong footer links shows confidence in design that emphasizes page-specific information with simple options to locate more or start from the beginning.

Digital Analytics Program

The General Services Adminstration’s Digital Analytics Program is an important effort to provide visibility into federal web traffic, and Vets.gov is participating in the program, as should every federal agency.

Active feedback

In the bottom right corner, there’s a feedback mechanism that allows users to give input on various aspects of the website.

“When you post an idea to our feedback forum, others will be able to subscribe to it and make comments,” says the site.

Having an open forum such as this allows users to see what’s been submitted and provides more transparency into the feedback. Most sites use a contact form which leaves the user wondering when and if it will ever be addressed.


The Vets.gov playbook provides all aspects of the team — editorial, design, development — with guidance to build a unified website based on core principles and processes.

Open source

The website has its own GitHub repo where you can download, fork, issue a pull request or add feedback. From the playbook, it appears it’s using Foundation and U.S. Web Design Standards for front-end development, both of which are open source.

Easter egg

Hidden in the comments of the source code is the Abraham Lincoln quote, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” While this is mostly interesting to me and anyone else who might be looking at the code, it’s an important, constant reminder to everyone working on this project why and who they’re building it for.

Congratulations to the team working on this. While the GitHub contributor list (go Danny Chapman!) is short, I’m sure there are many others behind it, and they should be proud they’re taking a bold step and setting the standard for how federal websites should be built.

California commission wants the state to design a better government

California State Capitol Building (Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/respres/21320615374/in/photolist-yu2J9N-8WjmsP-rQeDMM-gtpDe-dZaEky-dF4k1C-am5etR-yX23o-8HJ7gd-8PMgxJ-fC99vC-KzdeJ-8PMjUu-8PJbNv-dZ4Xvp-9bUoUQ-9gnHon-8kUQ9M-9aD1Mx-7eHJLs-8PMf99-dW163B-8mABLX-odjz6G-gBDwYL-am5frB-ecb8Xj-h3HTyK-aafpR-y6K8U5-9WShWo-7NcR3N-xBHeS-5TSqfQ-aafrL-wpUKst-8j77TS-9gqH8d-5wFQhS-zrVnjp-5mxMzR-9WShz9-8mDHow-5wBDY4-5wBDZH-3YTVFD-3YXSSE-5rJT2v-pXe5J-7bXbpV">Jeff Turner</a>)

California State Capitol Building (Photo: Jeff Turner)

A California bipartisan oversight committee, the Little Hoover Commission, has issued recommendations on how the state can bring a more customer-centric government to residents and visitors.

The report, “A Customer-Centric Upgrade For California Government,” calls for the governor and legislature to designate a chief customer officer, which would be assumed by the Secretary of the Government Operations Agency, and an internal digital services team “to help departments deliver services that work for Californians” that would reside within GovOps.

Specific solutions recommended include single sign-on to a personalized resident account, customized text and email communications and a focus on open data and human-centered design.

From the report:

“Like the federal government has done, California too should invite the very best engineers, technologists and designers from the private sector to apply their creativity and ingenuity to help tackle some of the most challenging problems facing the state. And the Governor and Legislature must create a home within the administration to welcome them in. Teaming with the new chief customer officers and their program colleagues, who in many cases already know what’s needed to solve some of the state’s most painful organizational and customer service problems, they could champion a new path for the state to tackle problems through small, incremental, but meaningful improvements. And in doing so, begin to reinvigorate California’s pioneer spirit in the 21st century, using 21st century technology.”

While the report provides high-level recommendations, here are a few tactical areas that must be addressed in order for any of this to be effectively implemented:

Create an open source policy. The role open source has played on in-house government innovation shops, especially Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, has been critical to their success. While there have been rumblings of support, California’s technical operations is severely lacking in its willingness to truly embrace open source. Failing to do this will deeply impact the next two recommendations.

Fix IT procurement. There has also been an effort to open up the procurement process beyond legacy vendors at the federal level, but California fails to a large degree to do this. While an in-house digital team is critical, the only way impact will scale is to bring in vendors that are less about legacy business models and more about agile, open innovation. Every state IT discussion or event I’ve been privy to favors entrenched, large-scale sales operations. While the UK was able to bring most, if not all of its digital operations in-house, the scale at which California needs support is much larger, and it’ll be a long time before the state can lure top-tier talent from Silicon Valley and other tech-centered areas to work for government, so it must rely on like-minded vendors.

Distribute the talent pool. If the state is serious about hiring the “best engineers, technologists and designers,” it must open distributed offices in other California cities, particularly San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. While 18F and USDS have lured some to Washington, D.C., Sacramento is not the nation’s capital and working for GovOps, or even the governor directly, is a far cry from the prestige of walking the halls of the Executive Office Building or White House.

Embrace the cloud. I’m not sure what the status of CalCloud is, but at one point there appeared to be an unwillingness to allow for non-government managed cloud-based services. While security considerations that must be taken into account, there needs to be more flexibility around allowing the use of third-party cloud offerings, especially those that don’t involve personal information.

The Little Hoover Commission report is an important resource for governments everywhere in understanding a new approach to addressing digital public services, and it’s great to see a state-sanctioned effort advocating this.

Let’s hope the governor and legislature move quickly to enact their recommendations and the ones above.

Download the report