U.S. Digital Service

Find the truth. Tell the truth.

Washington's Inauguration, 1789 (Photo: Architect of the Capitol)
Washington’s Inauguration, 1789 (Photo: Architect of the Capitol)

“Find the truth. Tell the truth.” is a core value of the U.S. Digital Service, and Ben Damman uses the mantra to share his sentiments on how it applies to California technology projects, particularly related to the nascent Office of Digital Innovation.

While Ben’s context is California, the gist applies to governments everywhere.

The traditional operating public sector principle is to shut down the hard conversations. This is common in command and control leaderships that discourage open discussions or questioning of authority. We see this dynamic within the bureaucratic hierarchy, but also with the relationship between government and vendors.

This is important, because when digital projects fail, it’s often not the technology, but the underlying culture that sets the precedence for success or failure. Operating inside a culture of fear will inevitably lead to digital project failure.

As Ben notes, especially in this day and age, “Eventually the truth does come out, but there are usually severe consequences for kicking the can so far down the road.”

Ben’s comments here are especially important for anyone in a government leadership position:

Telling the truth creates the space necessary to actually solve a problem. It allows decision makers to see what is really happening and decide to make necessary changes. It can unleash teams; empowering them to work with confidence and clarity.

When creating a results-oriented culture, truth-telling is fundamental. I have observed that teams pursuing the truth are more focused on results.

Teams that prioritize project optics over reality usually struggle to produce desired outcomes. State leaders must recalibrate incentives. If consultants and staff are punished for telling the truth, they are not going to tell the truth — putting projects in jeopardy. Instead, truth-tellers must be rewarded. They have to feel safe and be empowered.

In my experience, teams that face facts are more able to trust each other. Low truth environments produce low trust teams. On IT projects, where collaboration and coordinated iteration are paramount, low trust translates to low performance and high conflict communication.

It turns out that telling the truth is not just a moral imperative. Over time, it is more efficient than hiding the truth. Dishonesty creates friction.

I am reminded of times when I’ve seen government employees struggle to tell the whole truth without getting into trouble. They performed verbal somersaults; twisting events to formulate a positive spin on project status, misconduct, or some obvious collective failure.

Read the full post.

We want you: Recruiting and hiring for government digital services

Photo: U.S. Digital Service
Photo: U.S. Digital Service

If government truly wants to transform digital services and effectively serve the public at scale, it must start with how it attracts and retains top technology talent.

For generations, the government typically recruited people for their entire working career, just like any other large corporation. Times have changed. Now, no-one expects a job for life. Companies have changed how they recruit to handle this new economic reality. However, government doesn’t do much recruiting, and its convoluted hiring process discourages many, particularly in-demand digital designers and technologists, whose skills are highly-leveraged and well-compensated for.

Typically with government, a job opening is created — usually with dated skills requirements and classifications — then posted to a random location on a website or, at best, a privately-run one focused specifically on government job seekers.

The federal government consolidates its job openings on USAJOBS, which has improved greatly since its past troubles, but technologists — unless you’re a career bureaucrat or have nowhere else to leverage your COBOL skills — are less likely to use this as a channel for seeking employment.

More than one person I spoke with for this post used the word “calcified” to describe the government’s approach to hiring and recruiting.

A 2017 NextGov analysis of U.S. Office of Personnel Management federal workforce data shows a concerning trend with respect to technologists. According to the report, the federal government “employed roughly 1.8 IT workers age 60 or older for every IT employee under 30 years old in 2007, but that ratio more than doubled over the next 10 years, widening to 4.5 IT specialists age 60-plus per employee under 30 by 2017.”

And a 2018 California Department of Technology annual report found that 38% of current state government IT employees are at retirement age or will be within the next five years.

As older government employees begin to retire, the public sector will have to escalate and re-imagine its recruiting efforts, as well as streamline hiring in order to fill the ensuing gaping void. On top of all this, it will still have to compete with the private sector’s increasing demand — and lower barrier to employment — for high-tech labor.

As former U.S. Digital Service Head of People Operations Jennifer Anastasoff and former Acting Head of People Operations Jennifer Smith wrote in “Mobilizing Tech Talent: Hiring Technologists to Power Better Government,” published in September 2018 by the Partnership for Public Service:

“In order to address this problem, the government must prioritize recruiting and hiring senior leaders and employees with modern technical experience and know-how—experts who can prevent systemic failures, fix broken services, launch new digital initiatives and capitalize on emerging technologies.”

In researching and speaking with people who have served or are currently serving on, and in some cases have served on multiple digital teams, key themes emerged:

  • Start at the top
  • Prioritize diversity
  • Build the talent team
  • Define the skills
  • Create options
  • Form the pitch
  • Be transparent about the process
  • Promote the culture and people
  • Recruit outside the box
  • Hire for EQ
  • Measure and optimize
  • Empower existent staff
  • Modernize the bureaucracy

Start at the top

The time has come for the C-suite to genuinely know what it’s doing with respect to digital strategy.

We can no longer afford to rely on senior-level government leaders who know how to effectively use IT buzzwords and position themselves publicly as innovators, only to witness their ineffectiveness in private. If agency leaders, chief information officers and chief technology officers only bring to the table administrative or myopic IT experience , they will continue to be the ultimate blockers to successful project delivery. These positions must be filled with qualified people who have hands-on experience, can direct strategy and can call bullshit when they see it.

This need also applies to other administrative functions of government, such as human resources, legal, procurement, that factor into the success of digital implementation.

As Anastasoff and Smith write in “Mobilizing Tech Talent”:

“Agency chief information officers should be highly skilled technological managers who can successfully handle existing technical operations, infrastructure and services. They should be able to work effectively with leaders across the organization to modernize service delivery and the approach to buying and implementing technology infrastructure. Crucially, they also should be able to alter the expectations of government digital services. … Optimal candidates will have led organizational migrations from old systems to modern ones and have a track record of collaborating successfully with operations, product and engineering leaders to support the delivery of digital services. … Ultimately, the goal is to raise the bar for what is expected of senior executives, and this starts by hiring people who know what is possible.”

More and more, the digital adeptness of senior government leaders, particularly appointed ones, will be a strong reflection of the savviness of those issuing these appointments.

Prioritize diversity

“One of the core values underpinning the work of [UK] GDS is to ‘reflect the society we serve’,” writes UK GDS Director General Kevin Cunningham on the GDS blog. “We aim to help government work better for everyone and will only achieve this if our organisation is as diverse as the society we serve.”

A strong emphasis on team diversity, particularly with the scale digital has on reach, must be explicit, authentic and public. Examples of this include GDS’ minority-focused internal networks, hiring protocol and appointment of a diversity and inclusion manager, 18F’s Diversity Guild, and public, emphatic blog posts such as Cunningham’s and USDS’ “USDS + Lesbians Who Tech.”

These efforts aren’t without merit. According to a November 2018 USDS diversity report, 28 percent of the team was minority, “and striving to increase that,” with 44 percent self‑identifying as female, including 61.5 percent of the leadership.

As Matt Spector writes in “Building Better Digital Services Team”:

“It’s critical to build a digital services team that reflects the diversity of the population it serves. Teams that do can leverage broader perspectives and experiences in design processes. They will be far better-equipped to focus on and identify user needs. They will have more credibility with the public service and the public. While hiring standards for this kind of diversity can created a challenge, the best digital services teams practice what they preach.”

Build the talent team

With the goal of identifying how to effectively hire high-quality people quickly, in-house talent teams are a requisite for recruiting and hiring at the genesis of new digital service organizations. The amount of energy and resources needed to proactively find and onboard diverse, top-level talent is beyond the scope of traditional government HR teams, and this cannot be left to an external department with little to no cultural ties to the primary organization.

Having said that, digital talent teams also should be the conduit for educating human resource departments — often wedded to traditional, stringent protocol — on the unique hiring needs and goals of the digital teams and working closely with them to ensure they’re aligned with their agile ethos.

Again, Anastasoff and Smith write in “Mobilizing Tech Talent”:

“The Digital Services found that the best way to do this was to create their own talent teams to manage the recruiting and hiring process in-house, meet all compliance requirements including veterans’ preference and coordinate with agency HR teams when necessary, rather than rely on HR to manage the whole process. The teams are intimately familiar with effective industry practices, prioritize active recruiting, provide an excellent candidate experience and lead a rigorous selection process based on technical evaluation by subject matter experts.”

As former USDS team member John O’Duinn said, “The recruitment team could speak the languages of government HR and private sector HR fluently. Knowing what was ‘normal’ for private industry, helped them set candidate expectations, even for silently assumed topics. Just as importantly, they could work well inside government to help track and speed up the hiring process wheels whenever needed.”

Define the skills

Digital service teams require a new set of skills and roles, and these must be effectively outlined and described in today’s language rather than in the outdated or non-existent traditional government classifications and descriptions.

Baseline skills, as USDS describes, include working experience with:

  • Software development
  • DevOps and site reliability engineering
  • Engineering management
  • Product management
  • Product design
  • User experience and user interaction design
  • Content design
  • Contracting and technology acquisition expertise
  • Technical recruiting and talent operations
  • Product counsel
  • Navigating bureaucracy and policy
  • Communications

Note: I intend to address deeper nuances of digital delivery team make-up — skills and roles — in a future post.

Create options

The reality of some teams, particularly in their infancy, is that digital service organizations will need to get creative with enticing technical expertise.

Leveraging creative ways within the civil service structure, particularly for shorter term commitments that align with the length of the project, is a way to bring in new faces and expose them to the work with the hopes they stay but, at minimum become another vocal, public champion for the cause.

Examples of this include the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, which served as a feeder for 18F, and the USDS tours of duty.

Form the pitch

The downsides of applying for and working in tech-related government jobs are obvious: cumbersome hiring process, less pay, general negative perception of government and technology challenges are less cutting edge.

But the upside of a government job appeal to those who yearn for work with a greater purpose, strong sense of service and camaraderie of those doing the same.

The impact technologists can have internally and externally is exponential. Very few places can you work and make decisions that have an impact on many, and often in your own community. Technologists looking for a challenge and chance to leverage their multifaceted digital talent, especially given that government work requires this, will be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity.

As Matt Spector writes in “Building Better Digital Services Team”:

“Digital services teams shouldn’t underestimate their power to recruit—because finding qualified people for transformative public services isn’t a competition on salary or title, but on impact and mission. Recruitment rests on an appeal to a sense of duty, a desire to make the world better, and an opportunity to achieve change at scale.”

Service is the fundamental pitch, and digital teams must lead and emphasize this every chance it gets.

It’s as simple as the USDS motto “Solving big problems” or “You’ll Never be the Same Again.”

It’s also important to be frank about the work.

“My pitch is also honest: this work will be hard,” says San Rafael (Calif.) Director of Digital Service and Open Government Rebecca Woodbury. “You will get frustrated. but it’s worth it, because you are making things better. We are building a great team. If you want to be a cog in a well-oiled machine, this is not the job for you, but if you want to fix things and enjoy a challenge – you will love it here.”

Be transparent about the process

Government employment hiring is cumbersome and anyone would be exasperated by the process. It’s important for digital service teams to expose this so that, when knowing what to expect, there’s less room for uncertainty and anxiety that goes with a job search. Set the expectations so there’s less of this.

This includes the interview process, pay, benefits, offer and onboarding.

TTS (18F) does a great job of the latter, as well as outlining benefits, leave, and professional development and training processes. Canada also does a great job of setting expectations and providing clarity, as does USDS.

For interviews, it’s important to include subject matter experts. The 18F Core Values interview guide is a comprehensive resource for better vetting the technical skills of applicants, and incorporating technologists into interviews adds depth to the filtering and help HR understand needs beyond checking qualification boxes.

Former USDS team member Jeff Maher also recommends training for skills-specific interviewees so they are more adept at interviewing. Talent teams should train them “to be good interviewers that know how to ask questions that dig deep and improve their ability to recognize implicit bias.”

“This risk of not doing this is that even if all the others things come together, the wrong people get hired because the interviews were bad, and bad or poor-fit humans make for ineffective service delivery,” says Maher.

Promote the culture and people

Getting proactive with outreach shows the people and process involved in delivery and humanizes the institution of government. Essentially, you’re building trust with prospects — and the public — that your organization truly cares about the mission, is competent and a great place to work.

Proactive outreach includes posting photos of the people and events, interactions — as UK GDS does on Flickr and USDS on Instagram — and blogging, which UK GDS and 18F do frequently.

As the UK GDS says, “blogging helps us all be better civil servants.”

Recruit outside the box

Typically governments “post and pray,” as Anastasoff told me, when looking to fill job openings, and there’s not much of an effort beyond this to proactively seek top talent.

Digital service teams must leverage personal networks, civic technology focused events, design and coding meetups, political technology organizations and speaking and boothing at conferences to get the word out. While doing this, they must be mindful to be diverse in their efforts, so as to not create monocultures. This means nurturing diverse personal networks that trust you, long before you post your job opening.

And, as Anastasoff told me, at USDS “it was everyone’s job to recruit.”

Hire for EQ

Of course, it’s important to hire for TQ (technology IQ), but EQ (or emotional intelligence) is critical for digital service teams, especially when working in stagnant or toxic cultures, time-sensitive or failing projects, some that may be high-profile disasters.

The last thing you want on a project, particularly one with high stakes and emotions, is an arrogant technologist parachuting into a project, who thinks they are smarter than everyone else and can’t quickly foster trust with the team who happen to be the world’s leading experts in that specific existing domain, existing technology and hidden gotchas after years of hard-learned experience.

As John O’Duinn told me, “That rarely ends well.”

For high stakes projects, people need to quickly trust each other’s technical competence as well as their ability to work well with others in times of stress. Members of these teams, and leadership, must commit to emotional intelligence — empathy, humility, patience, sense of community — and value these traits as much as they do for TQ.

Measure and optimize

In a page pulled straight from the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, “Use data to drive decisions (Play 12),” it’s important that talent teams continuously measure progress on hiring effectively and efficiently.

In talking with Anastasoff, she emphasized the importance of recruiting and hiring metrics and continuously honing in on what’s working and what’s not, including assessing how the process works, how long things take, where the blockers are, and then fixing them.

As a result of its diligence, the USDS talent team was able to lower the average number of business days from application to offer from 152 (2015 Q1) to 34 (2017 Q2).

If the federal government can optimize for talent onboarding, anyone can.

Empower existing staff

One of the challenges with digital service projects is the support time stamp, such as the way USDS works with agencies. With the exception of longer-term commitments, like Defense Digital Service or Digital Service at VA, there is a set window of onboarding, delivery, handoff, and then on to the next project. Helping to build internal capacity and maintain continuity is critical.

As Sasha Magee, former 18Fer and now technical director for San Francisco Digital Services told me, digital service teams “can’t be big enough to impact an impact by themselves.”

While some can’t stay long-term due to the nature of delivery projects, or won’t, because they’ve committed to time-limited tours of duty, others will, and they may be there for a long time. The long-term success of digital depends on how prepared and bought in those who stay retain the skills and culture needed to sustain and thrive.

Creative recruiting and hiring will help, but in order for digital success to scale, there must be a focus on upgrading current staff — introducing new tools, communities of practice, training, handbooks — but also, just as important, helping them grok and adopt the culture of digital.

Ultimately, the onus is on these people to re-invent their cultures, operations and themselves, build digital teams of their own, educate and push leadership to evolve and adapt, and positively contribute to the future of public service leadership.

Modernize the bureaucracy

Some governments, such as California, are starting to come to terms with these lackluster hiring processes, and the increasingly critical impact they have on effectively recruiting and retaining qualified people.

California launched its Civil Service Improvement initiative in 2014. As part of this effort, in 2017, the state published a civil service improvement white paper, “The House We Are Building,” and reported to the state legislature an outline of the efforts made to streamline the state’s hiring process, including consolidating IT-related job classifications.

In January 2018, California consolidated 36 information technology job classifications into nine new ones. The state also reclassified data-related skills late last year.

“Information technology is a dynamic, constantly changing field,” said Government Operations Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer at the time. “This class consolidation plan gives the state modern descriptions and the structure needed to recruit and retain skilled information technology employees.”

And of its civil service reform efforts, GovOps proclaims on its website:

“An improved civil service system will produce a capable and engaged state workforce that is able to adapt to new challenges in serving the people of California and will reflect the diversity of the population it serves,.”

GovOps highlights key areas where the state is doing this.

Recruitment:

Making it less complicated to get a state job

Rewriting and eliminating outdated and onerous laws and personnel rules restrict hiring qualified candidates

Creating a state workforce that looks like the Californians we serve

Developing incentives and targeted recruitment strategies to attract college graduates

Retention/development:

Developing training structure to improve skills and provide upward mobility

Engaging employees and promote work-life balance for more productive employees

Compensation:

Thorough evaluation of full compensation and salary scale compaction issues

Addressing executive compensation gap with local government and related retention and recruitment issues

If meaningful civil service reform is to happen, it will be on a policy front that proactively addresses compensation, job descriptions and the bureaucratic categories under which they reside. Essentially, what’s needed is a global movement for a “Digital Government Jobs Modernization Act” at all levels of government.

Much sooner than later, political, bureaucratic government and union leaders everywhere should look to California’s efforts to address this in their own jurisdictions. If they are truly committed to modernizing today’s workforce, recruiting the next generation of technology innovators and effectively serving the public, they must get proactive.

Future of government work

Some argue governments must think more different, from distributed teams, pooled resources, and expanded use of microconsulting.

Distributed, remote work, especially in areas where resiliency planning and geographic representation should be baked into culture and operations. 18F, with its flexible telework and virtual worker policy, was able to attract people from all across the United States by stretching beyond the borders of a physical office space. John O’Duinn, formerly of USDS, wrote the book “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart,” focused on the improved hiring, retention, disaster resilience and other organizational benefits of this growing trend.

And while the move to hire full-scale, internal teams is the trend, microconsulting, could be a more agile, affordable, sustainable solution, especially for smaller, local governments and short-term projects.

Perhaps, as e.Republic Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler writes, “your best employees won’t work for you in the future.” After the social contract changed, and with the current generational workforce change, most private companies and most employees already work with a “no more job for life” mindset.

Apply today

For the designers, developers, project managers and product owners wanting to exponentially impact the world, there has never been a better time to leverage your expertise to change how public sector institutions — large and small — serve our communities.

It won’t be easy, but it will positively impact more people than you may imagine, including yourself.

As the much-quoted adage in civic tech goes, “No one is coming. It’s up to us.

Apply today to work for:

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


Government IT lobbyists play key role in blocking federal technology innovation

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Government Technology’s Jason Shueh finally brings to light the core impetus surrounding backlash against 18F efforts to fix federal government technology development and procurement practices.

From Shueh’s reporting, “IT Showdown: Tech Giants Face Off Against 18F“:

At a House subcommittee hearing on June 10, lobbyists from the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) alleged that 18F is hindering profits by acting as both a procurement policymaker and as a tech competitor inside the General Services Administration (GSA). The two groups assert a conflict of interest, and in testimony, have submitted a list of grievances and recommendations intended to curtail 18F’s authority.

Rightfully so, many are frustrated with the impact vendor lobbying efforts could have on the future of a critical program actually making a difference in changing federal technology operations. Of note are the Hacker News comments discussing this story.

Since the failure of a proper launch for HealthCare.gov, negative sentiments against big government IT vendors have become more prominent. It’s interesting to see this group starting to be associated with other old line industries that, rather than changing with the times, have resorted to lobbying against a small program like 18F to remain relevant.

Full story: IT Showdown: Tech Giants Face Off Against 18F

If Clinton is president, she’ll expand USDS, federal open source and open data efforts

Hillary Clinton released her technology and innovation agenda that promises to expand the U.S. Digital Service and agency-specific digital teams, encourage the continued adoption of open source and open data and bring a more user-friendly approach to federal government operations.

“Hillary believes that, beyond enabling innovation and economic growth, we should look to technology and data to provide better services to the American people, and make government smarter and more effective,” states the post announcing the agenda.

Here is the excerpt of her vision for a “smarter and more innovative government”:

  • Make Government Simpler and More User Friendly: The federal government too often operates with websites designed from another era. They are too complicated, too hard to use, and rarely designed for mobile phones or tablets. After the rocky release of Healthcare.gov, the Obama Administration launched the U.S. Digital Service, with a small group of technologists in the White House and the vision of deploying small technology teams throughout federal agencies. The U.S. Digital Service is already delivering results—making it easier for students and their families to compare college options, and easier for applicants to file immigration forms. But USDS and similar programs are only in their infancy. Hillary will:
  • Make Digital Services a Permanent Priority for Federal Agencies: Hillary will make the USDS and other digital services a permanent part of the executive branch to ensure that technical innovation becomes an ongoing feature of American governance. There should be a constant flow of technology and design experts working to make it easier for Americans to get affordable health insurance, apply for student loans, or get the veterans benefits they deserve.   Hillary will expand dedicated Digital Service teams throughout federal agencies (including civil servants and outside experts), and ensure that CIOs are part of this innovation agenda. She will maintain support for other federal tech programs—18F, Innovation Fellows, and Innovation Labs—and look to them to develop a coordinated approach to tackling pressing technology problems. She will also explore ways to leverage these capabilities to help our state and local governments with their own tech issues and agencies.
  • Transform the Top 25 citizen-facing Government Services: Hillary will charge the USDS with transforming and digitizing the top 25 federal government services that directly serve citizens. For each one, the USDS would redesign them to meet the needs of citizens in the 21st century; publish detailed performance and customer service metrics, including creating a “Yelp for government” that allows for easy citizen rating; and embrace the industry best practice of continuous site improvement. Hillary will make sure that government delivers on results for citizens.
  • Eliminate Internal Barriers to Government Modernization: The federal government uses cumbersome processes for buying information technology and hiring technical experts. And it has outdated laws and rules which impose internal impediments to building modern digital services—i.e., it can take many months to make simple changes to a website or get a digital form approved. Hillary will streamline procurement processes and get rid of unnecessary internal red tape that prevents government from developing intuitive and personalized digital experience that they have come to expect from great consumer internet companies.
  • Use the Best and Most Cost Effective Technology: The federal government spends nearly $90 billion in information technology but the American taxpayer doesn’t get $90 billion in value. Hillary will make it easier for the federal government to find, try, and buy innovative technology—including open source software. She would also break large federal IT projects into smaller pieces, so it will be easier to stop projects that are over budget or failing to meet user needs, and also more feasible for small and medium-sized businesses to support public service projects.
  • Open up More Government Data for Public Uses: The Obama Administration broke new ground in making open and machine-readable the default for new government information, launching Data.gov and charging each agency with maintaining data as a valuable asset. With more accessible datasets, entrepreneurs can create new products and services, citizens can evaluate more effectively how the government does it job, researchers can look for new insights – and government can work better. Hillary will continue and accelerate the Administration’s open data initiatives, including in areas such as health care, education, and criminal justice. She would fully implement the DATA Act to make government spending more transparent and accountable to the American people, improving USASpending.gov so that Americans can more accurately see how and where their taxpayer dollars are spent. She would also bring an open data approach to regulation—making it easier for businesses to submit structured data instead of documents, and bringing greater transparency to financial and other markets so that regulators, watchdog groups, and the American people can more easily identify fraud and illegal behavior.
  • Harden Federal Networks to Improve Cybersecurity: U.S. government networks have long been subject to intrusions from hackers with various affiliations and objectives.  Hillary is committed to increasing the security of our government networks, making it harder for hackers to gain unauthorized access.  She will prioritize the enforcement of well-known cybersecurity standards, such as multi-factor authentication, as well as the mitigation of risks from known vulnerabilities.  She will encourage government agencies to consider innovative tools like bug bounty programs, modeled on the Defense Department’s recent “Hack the Pentagon” initiative, to encourage hackers to responsibly disclose vulnerabilities they discover to the government.  And she will bolster the government’s ability to test its own defenses by increasing the capacity of elite, cleared government red teams to help agencies find and fix vulnerabilities before hackers exploit them.
  • Facilitate Citizen Engagement in Government Innovation: The Obama Administration has encouraged agencies to use new approaches to improve their functions and better serve the American people. In turn, agencies are now using “incentive prizes” to uncover creative solutions from citizen solvers, Idea Labs to empower front-line employees, and flexible procurement authorities to engage startups. Hillary will champion these strategies, putting innovation at the heart of her management agenda. She will direct the members of her Cabinet to increase the number of federal employees that identify and implement new ideas from citizens and businesses to help government serve the country more effectively.
  • Use Technology to Improve Outcomes and Drive Government Accountability: Advances in data analytics, presentation, and communications have driven a transformation in how modern businesses track their performance, both internally and externally. Data-driven dashboards that present an organization’s goals and their performance against those goals are increasingly the norm, as is the open communication of this performance data to the entire organization. The Obama Administration embraced this management approach by creating performance.gov, which presents goals and progress for major government agencies. Hillary will also embrace this practice of prioritized goal setting and performance tracking for the federal government. Her agenda and priorities would be clearly articulated on performance.gov; progress against these goals would be demonstrated, using up-to-date, real time data; and issues blocking progress would be presented, along with action plans to address them. By promoting this high type of transparency and accountability, and leveraging technology to do so in a real-time manner, citizens will develop greater confidence that their government is working for their common good.

Read Clinton’s technology and innovation agenda.

GAO needs a better digital strategy. Here’s how 18F and USDS can help.

gao.gov

Source: gao.gov

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on the fiscal and administrative state of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, both established to make federal government digital services work better for users, and it appears the agency could use some help from the two on its own website, gao.gov.

Here are four ways GAO’s digital operations must be rebooted to meet the needs of today’s web user, and how 18F and USDS helped us better understand all of this.

HTTPS

The GAO website is not secure for users visiting gao.gov.

As 18F has emphasized, HTTPS protects visitor privacy with a secure, encrypted connection and is an important practice for .gov domains to adhere to.

The move to HTTS for all .gov websites began more than a year ago, yet gao.gov still remains unencrypted.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created a number of HTTPS resources for governments and agencies having difficulty understanding its importance and quickly adopting it.

Mobile-friendly

The GAO website is not mobile-friendly.

Whether it’s a phone, tablet or laptop, gao.gov doesn’t adapt to the device you’re using. As billions of people around the world are now using mobile devices to access information, it’s requisite that all government websites are mobile-friendly so their services are accessible to everyone.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created the U.S. Web Design Standards that makes it easy for anyone creating government websites to build mobile-friendly sites (including accessible color schemes, which GAO does a mediocre job on).

Update:

Alex Howard notes that GAO has a separate mobile version (launched in 2010) of its website and an app (launched in 2012). While these were great technological enhancements at the time, they no longer meet today’s standards around responsive design and streamlined development practices.

Rather than building one site that adapts to all devices, GAO has created two development environments and duplicated development costs.

While an app is certainly mobile, it doesn’t qualify in this case, as it’s a secondary outlet to the website.

Open data

GAO does not have a comprehensive open data strategy.

While the site provides a great list of RSS feeds, not all reports are in data-friendly formats (all are, however, in PDFs). There also appears to be no public application programming interface (however Sunlight Foundation has created one via its Sunlight Congress API).

Unsurprisingly, GAO’s report on 18F and USDS isn’t available through an open, accessible, digital format.

Fortunately for GAO, while not directly created by 18F or USDS, but done by many who now serve in each, there is Project Open Data to help it get started on executing an effective open data strategy.

Analytics

GAO doesn’t participate in the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program.

As the agency that provides oversight on federal government activities, it would be great to have more transparency into its website analytics.

Given that gao.gov is already using Google Analytics, and familiar with its tools, this is easily resolved with a simple snippet of code provided by DAP.

Thoughts

I get nervous when policymakers take a myopic approach to assessing technology, especially in a politically charged environment like Washington, D.C., where there are behind-the-scenes personal and business relationships that impact motivations around critiquing new initiatives like 18F and USDS.

I especially get nervous when an agency charged with overseeing federal government technology practices fails the digital test.

If GAO is serious about modernizing its own digital strategy, 18F and USDS can surely help.

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.

The 4 most popular .gov websites aren’t mobile friendly

Top 5 .gov websites

Source: analytics.usa.gov

Despite a digital strategy issued by the White House two years ago calling for more mobile-friendly citizen services, the top four most-visited federal government websites over the past 30 days fail this test according to new analytics numbers released by the General Services Administration.

The new analytics.usa.gov dashboard launched last Thursday, culls data from 300 (of “approximately” 1,350) executive branch domains, highlights the most-visited websites and breaks down visitor numbers by devices, browsers and operating systems.

The top four trafficked websites over the past 30 days are irs.gov, weather.gov, usajobs.gov and nps.gov.

None of these websites, however, adhere to responsive web design standards, a development approach that allows for websites to easily adapt to a user’s device, be it phone, tablet or desktop, and provide an appropriate, enjoyable user experience.

According to the analytics, 25 percent of visitors to .gov websites are using mobile devices. Including tablet users, more than a third of citizens are getting a less-than-optimal user experience while visiting these sites.

Those top four domains alone have received nearly 200 million visits over the past 30 days.

One notable omission to the data is healthcare.gov, which does meet mobile standards, but is not included in the analytics numbers.

“Our services must work well on all devices,” says a post on the White House website announcing the analytics dashboard.

“Over the past 90 days, 33% all traffic to our sites came from people using phones and tablets. Over the same period last year, the number was 24%. Most of this growth came from an increase in mobile traffic. Every year, building digital services that work well on small screens becomes more important.”

Per a May 2013 federal digital strategy published by the White House, “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People,” agencies should enable “the American people and an increasingly mobile workforce to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.”

“We are also optimizing Federal websites for mobile devices and creating mobile apps to ensure government services are available to citizens anywhere, anytime and on any device,” wrote former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and former Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel announcing the strategy in 2013.

According to its “Minimum Computer Requirements for Free File Fillable Forms” page, irs.gov doesn’t support the Safari web browser, which drives 20 percent of all visitor traffic to .gov domains and is the default browser for iPhone and iPad users.

The analytics tool was built by 18F, GSA’s Digital Analytics Program and the new U.S. Digital Service.

U.S. Digital Service opens itself up to the public

U.S. Digital ServicesAfter getting some grief for not having a strong public presence, the U.S. Digital Service is beginning to open itself up with a new website, video and Twitter account.

The new website highlights projects and team members and makes a compelling recruitment push for “designers and writers, engineers and product managers, researchers and procurement experts committed to untangling, rewiring, and redesigning our government.”

From the website:

We understand the challenges, we’re equipped with the right tools and resources, and every day a growing number of America’s most talented people are joining hard-working public servants to make a difference. This community is the United States Digital Service. Together, we work with seasoned leaders across government to build world-class public services…and redefine public service for a new generation.

Apply for a job at USDS, follow on Twitter at @USDS, sign up for USDS email updates and learn more about its work.

Watch the new video: