United States

‘The woeful state of government technology’

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

San Francisco Chief Digital Services Officer Carrie Bishop published an excellent commentary piece that touches on several issues we in the digital government industry don’t talk much about, or at all.

Particularly, her pointed thoughts on the dismal state of government technology are something we as an industry need to discuss more openly and deeply, and emphatically address if we truly care about the future of a healthy democracy.

This part of Carrie’s commentary speaks to me, and is something everyone in the industry should read, talk more about, actively get unsettled with and do something to change:

Looking at the woeful state of government technology it’s clear there is a crisis in our sector. The struggle of legacy technology is real, and the market is ripe for disruptors, but the lead times, the slow pace of change in the sector, and the age-old problem of procurement all make it a bleak market for new entrants.

The systems are rotting from the inside. Their molasses code, their disintegrating interfaces, and their putrifying business models are at the core of government service delivery, but they persist because they are so entrenched. In theory, it would be easy for a company to breeze through and disrupt the incumbents. The hard part is the change.

The true challenge is the time it takes to procure from cold contact to signed contract, and convincing people to go with an unknown entity instead of an entrenched inevitability. The hard work is helping cities imagine services that are designed around the people that use them, instead of department silos. Based on my experience as a vendor in this market I’d say that this process takes about two years from start to finish with just one city client.

The most viable option for governments is to build internal teams who can absorb the impact of this hostile environment. Expecting new vendors to have enough financial backing and mature enough products is too big of an ask. I have realized that there are some things only government teams can do. Only an internal team can build for the most complex use cases and the edge-cases, as well as the mainstream. Vendors, and even non-profits, especially new entrants to the market, are just not financially able to do this hard work, but this is exactly what government should be focused on.

For many legacy institutions, empowering democracy has become a secondary priority to maintaining the status quo for profit or personal stability, whether it’s the business model of a government-focused nonprofit organization or legacy vendor or a public sector leader that’s been in the same comfortable role for years. This isn’t meant to condemn, but more to emphatically point out that a sense of purpose for some needs to be re-established. This is tough for entrenched people and organizations.

There is a gray area with respect to internal digital service teams and external vendor support. What we don’t talk about much is that the reality is the smaller a government gets, the less likely they’re able to attract or afford digital talent, regardless of the sense of mission it brings.

Unfortunately, this is where we see even worse habits with respect to legacy organizations. We often conflate what is happening at the national, state or big city level to what everyone else (and there are a lot of everyone elses) can realistically accomplish on their own.

The state of government technology is woeful. The expectations we have for those in executive technology positions, as well as the legacy institutions (organizations and vendors) who have captured much of the market, are low. What’s unfortunate is that many inside government don’t realize how bad legacy vendor technology really is, judging it not by merit, but by an established relationship or how entrenched it is within the market.

As Carrie mentions, this environment makes it tough for civic entrepreneurs to get and stay excited about their potential to help re-imagine civics in their own way, in a way that serves everyone. Speaking from firsthand experience, it is a challenge for new entrant disruptors to gain a foothold, and there are many reasons for this. This is a conversation we need to have, and I’m thankful Carrie opened up that door.

I look forward to continuing it.

Read more: The same but different

How civic hackers helped California’s DMV get digital momentum

DMV website

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has experienced its fair share of criticism lately, which caused Governor Gavin Newsom to set up a DMV Strike Team to focus on reviewing and recommending “new long-term leadership and reform at DMV.” The team released a report in July.

Part of that effort focused on improving DMV’s digital experience, which has a long way to go.

Earlier this year, I worked on a prototype and wrote up my ideas (here and here) of how DMV should think about digital transformation, including working outwardly with the community.

Subsequently, the strike team collaborated with the Code for America Brigade Network on a series of state-wide series of user experience tests, which ultimately confirmed what everyone already knew, that “the end-user experience of the DMV website was not a priority.”

DMV Strike Team member Jacob Roper has a great post on the Code California blog about how my work, CivicDMV and the Brigades helped inspire DMV to “unlock” California’s DMV Web Services.

This is an inspiring story of how government can work with the community in gathering ideas, cultivating expertise and insights from those beyond the bureaucracy to contribute meaningful contributions to government in their own ways. In this case, it drove the momentum for change in ways we don’t often see with government.

Hopefully, DMV will continue this effort, and other agencies — inside and outside California — take this case study and build frameworks for engagement to help them get out of their own boxes.

The future of government is one that is a culture of open, and this is a small example of the possibilities.

From Jacob’s post:

By late July, the Strike Team worked with DMV to fix bugs, refresh content on the most commonly-viewed pages and restructure the homepage by creating clear navigational channels for users, emphasizing what CAN be done online. The team and staff also improved access to translation services, which jumped by 300 percent only a week after the change was made.

These were the first iterations of a larger redesign, with many more to come. As a result of this effort, we sensed the shift of energy within the team behind the DMV website. They were empowered, and are now driving forward their own ideas like streamlining content and improving customer service with a Chatbot (and eventually live chat services) to the department’s website.

Read more: How Civic Engagement Is Unlocking California’s DMV Web Services

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.

California levels up on digital, seeks director for new innovation office

Code California

California is officially for looking for its first director of the newly-established Office of Digital Innovation.

Individuals who aspire to lead the office can complete the interest form on the California Government Operations Agency website.

From the job description:

The Director of ODI will build a world-class team, create the culture, build the institution, and deliver real results. The Director will also become the de facto community leader and convener of innovators across the state. This is a tremendous opportunity to build a movement, and develop capabilities statewide. The Director will also provide advice and guidance to senior government officials grounded in deep experience and an understanding of what works.

In January, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed the new innovation office as part of the state’s 2019-20 budget.

The office will reside under GovOps and “have the authority to develop and enforce requirements for departments to assess their service delivery models and underlying business processes from an end-user perspective.”

This line in the job description — placed at the end — stands out as a red flag and will cause potential external candidates or folks with little government experience from applying: “Bureaucracy-savvy. You know what it means to work in a large bureaucracy, and understand how to deliver in one.”

I’m not sure the value of requiring or communicating this, even if it looks like an afterthought, but perhaps the message is that the state does just want that experience for this first-time role. It should be noted that both the U.S. Digital Service and United Kingdom Government Digital Service were first led by outsiders who had no previous government experience.

Having said that, this is a civic technologist’s dream job, especially if you’re a Golden State resident who wants to have a major impact on how your state governments serves your fellow Californians.

Help spread the word

Golden State dot-gov

Code California

California is on the cusp of ushering in a new era of government digital services, one that our elected leaders can finally align, prioritize and execute on, and prove to the people of the Golden State that our representatives are ready to innovate just as other industries here have done.

The future of the digital government services we deserve is in the hands of Governor Gavin Newsom and the California state legislature, who now must work together and execute on a holistic, forward-thinking plan, with both having a strong understanding and commitment to what this means, so that there’s little confusion as to how it will work.

Newsom himself authored a book focused on digital public service and the scalable, impactful power of civic technology. He has championed modern technologies — from open standards to software-as-a-service — throughout his political career. We have a California governor that gets digital and technology better than anyone previous, and perhaps more so than any other governor in the United States.

This, coupled with the legislature’s understandable frustrations with recurring, failed, billion dollar technology projects — and many poorly-executed million dollar ones — offers the perfect storm to propel us towards the digital change we need.

Newsom has proposed a new Office of Digital Innovation as part of the state’s 2019-20 budget, with initial start-up costs of $36.2 million and 50 positions.

When the official budget is approved in June, we’ll know better what type of commitment will be made to this effort and how far forward-thinking California — a state that prides itself on technology innovation — will “think different.”

This first $36 million is the seed money we need to create the scalable digital revolution that will change California government services for the better, forever

Built on my recent research on digital government services as well as the book Digital Transformation at Scale, here are thoughts on how we get there.

Distinguishing digital

There is typically confusion as to the difference between digital and technology. While digital leverages technology, digital is not purely a technology function. Digital is a scalable, sustainable approach to serving people online.

Government technology departments at their core should focus on setting a directive that provides governance and guidelines to all agencies. They also should procure and manage general, multi-use software and platforms at licenses and costs that financially benefit the state. Their core function ensures there is an exponential approach to how the state is leveraging technology, be it bespoke, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) or a combination of both.

While an important one, technology is just one component of digital government service delivery.

Digital, on the other hand, as elegantly defined by the Canadian Digital Service, is “helping government design and build better services.”

Generally, government service delivery includes:

  • providing better online user experiences
  • leveraging modern technologies
  • deploying iterative project management practices
  • fixing procurement
  • recruiting and hiring great people

Digital government organizations that have emerged over the past decade 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’s EtaLab 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.

It’s important for government leaders — particularly elected officials responsible for budget allocation — to distinguish between digital and technology, so as to not confuse past IT failures and building a future digital government strategy. Our government leaders must understand that the former has often occurred because the lack of the latter.

Exponential digital

In today’s age, knowledge and technology scale and can be deployed and accessed faster and cheaper than ever before. Examples of this include Wikipedia (billions of pageviews per month), WordPress (powers 26% of the web) and “the cloud.”

These technologies have grown in usage because of an open, exponential mindset, the same one the government of today must have. As do technology entrepreneurs, our public sector leaders must ask this question when thinking exponential government:

“How do we serve the most people as efficiently and effectively and resourcefully as possible?”

Incremental government service delivery is the status quo approach responsible for government technology failures in California and globally. Rooted in a lack of standards or a technology directive that provides guidance as to how all systems should operate.

California government leaders must “think exponential,” enforcing standards and guidance rooted in open and platform-based standards and technologies that empower state public servants to do their jobs the way they intend.

Exponential questions California state leaders should ask about every digital or technology initiative:

  • How does it build a more unified, elegant experience for the people of California?
  • How does this scale to other agencies?
  • How will it save money for the state of California?

Example digital

The United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service was founded in 2011. By 2013, it had 200 employees. Today, it has more than 850, all managing delivery, guidance, a marketplace and multiple platforms and products that uniformly serve the people of UK.

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.”

It also recommended a “CEO for Digital … absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APls) and the power to direct all government online spending.”

It has become the blueprint for how governments can elegantly and exponentially execute digital services holistically and sustainably. It has brought respect and pride to the work of public service not just in the UK, but globally.

The GDS birth and evolution, including lessons-learned and recommendations for how to build a government digital service elsewhere, are well-documented in Digital Transformation at Scale, written by four of its founders and former executive, design and technology leaders. It is a must-read for every public service employee anywhere.

Mandatory digital

Exponential digital will require aspirational and bold leadership from Governor Newsom and the California legislature, some that may not be popular to status quo thinkers. Following successful digital execution in the UK, California should learn from this and make these tough choices for the sake of the people and the future of state public service.

Pause ‘innovation’

The word ‘innovation’ and general concept evoke a sentiment that those involved with it will not be focused on meaningful, concrete deliverables. The proposed Office of Digital Innovation should be renamed to emphasize actual service delivery and not transcendental technology endeavors that do not involve solving real problems right now. This new organization needs to be taken seriously from the start, and naming it based on function is as important for optics as it is for internal focus.

As the GDS founders and former leaders write in Digital Transformation at Scale, “No innovation until things work.“

The proposed organization should be named Digital California, California Digital Services, or something similar that indicates deliverables at scale is its primary focus.

Appoint an empowered chief digital officer (and internet-era CTO)

Digital California needs a senior-level executive that holds rank with other cabinet officials and has a mandate to lead comprehensive digital services into the future. If this person is third-tier on the organizational chart, Digital California won’t have the political, financial or administrative authority to effectively execute and will potentially devolve into an incremental organization.

The time has also come for an internet-era chief technology officer that either works within Digital California or as the chief executive of the California Department of Technology. California must have a leader with bonafide IT experience and proven leadership understanding deeply and deploying technology on multiple fronts to establish a proactive technology directive, as well as better vet current projects.

Move to single domain

Just as California has currently, prior to GDS, the UK government had multiple websites under multiple domains (some outside of the official government .gov one) with varying aesthetics, functionality and accessibility, security and/or mobility adherence. As it now does in California, this caused duplicate development efforts, inconsistent user experiences and a general focus on the organization or agency, rather than how the end user expects to experience a government service.

To address this issue, as the UK did with GOV.UK, California must move all web operations to its primary domain, ca.gov, and begin consolidating all websites and transactions into a “One California” user experience. The single domain approach must include a service manual, design principles, service standard and digital strategy, aligning digital direction forward, much like the technology directive will for IT.

Publish a technology directive

In collaboration with Digital California, the California Department of Technology must develop a technology directive that outlines standards, governance and guidelines for implementing and managing technology used by the state.

In 2018, Canada published its Directive on Management of Information Technology, and it’s a blueprint for how California should proceed.

Notable components of the directive include:

  • Use open standards and solutions by default
  • Maximize reuse
  • Enable interoperability
  • Use cloud first
  • Design for performance, availability and scalability
  • Design for security and privacy

California has yet to deliver proactive technology leadership such as Canada’s, and it’s imperative going forward that it does. Having a coherent, holistic framework for how the state procures and manages its relationship with technology — whether bespoke or through third-party software and platform services — is a requisite for the health of future California IT projects and digital delivery.

Implement spending controls

California should never again have to experience billion dollar IT failures. As the UK government did, there must be spending controls that limit the lifetime value of an IT contract. In the UK’s case, it was $100 million.

As the authors of Digital Transformation at Scale write:

“Any large organization with growing IT costs needs to recognise that it is running against market trends; the cost of established technology is falling, and the last thing an organization needs is to buy even more of it. If you want the same outcomes for your business, your IT should get cheaper. If you want outcomes that improve at the same rate as technology evolves, the costs should stay broadly the same. And if you want to be at the bleeding edge, you should make very sure you are making a wise investment.”

Run assessments

Digital California should establish an assessment team to determine whether projects should be dissolved before they turn into epic failures. Based on objective standards and knowledge of delivery and technology, this team should be empowered to shutter any project that isn’t meeting its intended service objective.

Again, as the authors of Digital Transformation at Scale write:

“Those responsible for making decisions over the wisdom of a technology investment or digital service should be people who deeply understand technology or who have built digital services. This sounds obvious, but is often not the case. Rather than clever generalists looking at forms, appraisals and assessments were led by multidisciplinary panels of specialists experts unafraid of putting a few noses out of joint, not generalists with one eye on their career.”

Measure and publish progress

Digital California must continuously be open about its progress, from delivery status to fiscal impact. There should be reporting that highlights, in the context of digital, how it’s answering the three questions posed earlier:

  • How is it building a more unified, elegant experience for the people of California?
  • How is it scaling to other agencies?
  • How is it saving money for the state of California?

The UK does this with its performance dashboard and Digital Efficiency Report. The U.S. Digital Service does this in an annual report to Congress.

In its 2012 report, GDS estimated it would save “between £1.7 billion and £1.8 billion could be realised as total annual savings to the government and service users.” In 2017, USDS reported to Congress that “over a 5-year period, we project our current projects will save $617 million and redirect 1,475 labor years toward higher-value work.”

Digital California should provide both a performance dashboard and annual report, in context of deliverables and financial savings, so that progress can be regularly monitored, shared and celebrated. This will ensure there is ongoing insight into progress and less of a potential for failure in the context we’ve seen in the past.

As we’ve seen with GDS and USDS, California’s potential for financial savings alone is exponential. A deeper dive into UK’s performance dashboard shows equal opportunity for delivering and scaling public digital services.

Onwards digital

California Senator Kamala Harris raised the bar on digital leadership last week, proposing the Digital Service Act that would allocate increased funding and support to USDS and state and local governments.

“We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century,” said Harris. “The Digital Service Act will help harness top talent for the government, save taxpayer dollars, and put the power of technology to work on behalf of the American people.”

As the largest state in America with the fifth largest economy in the world (larger than UK), California must take the opportunity it has before us and execute a bold approach by making a GDS-like investment in its digital future. For elected officials who represent innovative constituents and organizations across many industries, doing the same for government is a no-brainer.

In “Finding the Path to Digital Services at Scale,” Ben McGuire writes:

“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, the poster child for revolutionary digital government, 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.”

As our governor and legislature work to determine the future of the California public services, its people are counting on high aspirations and great courage to lead them into the digital future.

Part 2: Re-imagining the California DMV website

It’s been a week since I published my thoughts on re-imagining the California Department of Motor Vehicles website. During that time, the issues I had with not receiving my REAL ID were resolved and the process inspired me to think and prototype a little more on the first iteration.

My personal user experience

Through the entire process — experiencing mail, field office, online, phone (with three different departments) and social media interactions — I’ve gained a more holistic insight into how others most likely interact with DMV.

General observations:

  • Phone: My interactions with all three operators were pleasant and succinct. The hold times were long. The practice of informing callers that all operators are busy and to call back at a later time is a customer support fail. The auto call-back feature used by the main line is something that should be incorporated across all departments.
  • Social: I was pleasantly surprised by the Twitter follow-up and, in hindsight, I wish I would have pursued this route just to see how effective the support there is.

Prototype update

I made some minor updates to the prototype, including the homepage, beta bar and initial concept for a tertiary page.



I made the call-to-action links more app/kiosk-like. As mentioned in my previous post, this aesthetic would force a more pithy approach on the content front.

Beta bar

Beta bar

I added a ‘beta bar’ explaining to users that this is a prototype with a link to details as well as the official DMV website. It’s ubiquitous without causing too much aesthetic distraction.

Tertiary page

Tertiary page

A new tertiary page mock-up includes an accordion approach to content, allowing for a larger amount of content to be included on a page without causing it to be overwhelming or having more additional pages than neccessary.

I created an issue to consolidate REAL ID content from the official DMV website onto this page at a future date. This will serve as an example of how content on the current site can be better consolidated and presented, as there are several documents and pages that could easily merge into just one.

DMV digital innovation ideas

Go beta

Having a public beta that starts small, iterates based on user activity, research and feedback, is now the status quo, and is the safest approach to launching a new website, particularly one with large-scale reach.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs did this with va.gov. Previously, va.gov was the flagship website for VA, and vets.gov became a public beta, leveraging an open and agile approach to development. Vets.gov is now VA’s flagship website.

If VA, one of the largest federal government agencies can do this, so can California DMV.

Open the data

California DMV provides some data around offline user experience in the form of wait times. While it’s not in an extensible format, it is interesting and helpful, and the fact that the agency is publishing any is encouraging.

Having access to website traffic would be incredibly insightful in helping to conceptualize more on the prototype.

DMV could easily do this through a tool like Google Data Studio. This would take a few hours to stand up and provideto make a public dashboard of this information. Some examples of using Data Studio to display Google Analytics are here, here, here and here.

An alternative would be to publish this information, and the wait time data, in open formats at data.ca.gov.

Code DMV

It would be inspiring to see the state host an open space, civic-focused Code DMV event that incorporated user testing and rapid prototyping to help build a beta DMV website.

An event like this would go a long way in showing that DMV is embracing a culture of open, proactively working with the community to re-imagine how it can better serve the residents of California. It would also align with the state’s new Code California initiative, “an open collaboration between agencies, industry technology partners and civic technologists working to code a more innovative, collaborative and effective government that best serves the people of California.”


If you have ideas or want to build on the prototype, add your issues or comments in the GitHub repository or fork it and contribute back.

Re-imagining the California DMV website

Re-imagining the California DMV website

I recently visited my local California Department of Motor Vehicles field office to renew my driver license and, because I scheduled an appointment ahead of time, my experience wasn’t the nightmare it’s traditionally made out to be.

However, the designer in me couldn’t help but think about how the entire DMV process could be re-designed, both offline and online.

I’m still waiting to receive my new REAL ID license, so I went to the DMV website to learn how I could find the status. While there, I realized there is a huge opportunity to re-imagine its user experience, so I spent a few hours designing a prototype.


The key goals of DMV digital should be to:

  • Increase website traffic where users can self-serve
  • Increase kiosk traffic where users can self-serve
  • Decrease field office visits (because of the successful implementation of the above two bullets)


I came up with an “Online. Not in line.” slogan, which I incorporated into the homepage to better help socialize the web and kiosks options.

There’s significant creative opportunities around a campaign like this to drive people to self-service or be more proactive using the website and kiosks to be better prepared before making a field office visit.


Without getting too detailed in a critique of the current DMV website, there are two areas that should be of primary focus:

  • Content: The content should be significantly consolidated, edited and made more concise. Much of it is redundant, wordy and extraneous.
  • User interface: The aesthetic is clearly dated, but the use of graphics in certain instances is unnecessary. A clean, simple text-based approach with a more app/kiosk feel would make the experience feel less intimidating and cumbersome.

What I did

I created prototypes of the home and secondary pages, focusing on simplicity and an app/kiosk user interface.


Tools I used


It’s doubtful I’ll continue working on this, but would love to hear feedback or perhaps start a conversation around how the DMV website could be re-imagined to better serve the people of California.

Thank you

I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who works at DMV, especially those of you on the front lines in the field offices.

Decades of bureaucracy coupled with the reach and role the agency has on every Californian has created a Herculean, thankless challenge for everyone who works there. While we all know it could be made better, you’re the ones in the trenches.

As a proud California resident, I hope you challenge status quo thinking and re-imagine how DMV can be re-designed — offline and online — and become a positive conduit for state pride — internally and externally — and for how public service should work.

Thank you for serving California.

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.


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


Developing training structure to improve skills and provide upward mobility

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


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:

Newsom proposes new California Office of Digital Innovation for 2019-20 budget

Code California

California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a new Office of Digital Innovation as part of the state’s 2019-20 budget with initial start-up costs of $36.2 million and 50 positions. The proposal also includes an innovation academy and $20 million innovation fund.

The office will reside under the California Government Operations Agency and “have the authority to develop and enforce requirements for departments to assess their service delivery models and underlying business processes from an end-user perspective.”

From the proposal:

A primary goal of government is the efficient delivery of government services. To further this goal, California must change the way it approaches service delivery and technology investments. Millions of Californians interact with government services every day: residents apply for drivers’ licenses, students compare financial aid options, and small business owners apply for licenses or pay business taxes. Too often, outdated tools and complex systems make these interactions cumbersome and frustrating. Additionally, manual processes and the lack of digital service delivery often require individuals to take time off work and go to a physical office to interact directly with government staff.

The state must transform from a passive governance model that largely responds to individual statutory and policy mandates to one that actively establishes measurable customer service benchmarks and leading digital service delivery from a programmatic and statewide perspective.

Read the 2019-20 budget summary.

California releases state government website standards

Web Standards and Design System for California Government

Source: webstandards.ca.gov

The California Department of Technology has published unified design standards and accompanying resources for official state government websites.

As part of this initiative, a new website, webstandards.ca.gov, will serve as the foundation for “standards, code, functionality, implementation guidelines and best practices for Agencies/state entities to implement this policy,” according to the technology letter announcing the standards.

More from the announcement:

As state government continues to expand access to online services, websites are an essential tool to interact with the public and deliver information to the people of California. The Website Standards policy ensures standardization and adoption of best practices to strengthen the security, usability, accessibility and quality of State of California websites. This policy will foster a consistent look and feel, and a common navigational framework across government, helping visitors recognize they are accessing official State of California information. This policy also promotes reasonable steps to design and develop websites that are accessible to people with disabilities and supports the adoption of usability principles that adhere to California’s usability standards for website development.

Visit webstandards.ca.gov to learn more.