How California gets a return on its $25 million innovation investment

Time for Alpha 2.0.

March 21, 2022

As part of Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2021-22 budget, the California Department of Technology has received $25 million “to demonstrate how investments in agile IT solutions can rapidly improve government services.”

From the state’s technology modernization fund website:

The TMF was established to make immediate investments in IT that will yield quick and meaningful results for the people of California. CDT invites California state departments or entities to submit business challenges that require an IT solution to modernize government and improve digital services for California residents and state employees. This will enable departments to deliver timely business modernization wins through a high-value proof of concept, fulfill an immediate need, and optimize services for digital government. A strong commitment from the department’s business and IT leadership and team capability are required to be successful.

California Alpha

In 2019, I was fortunate enough to be part of the small team tasked with re-imagining what California digital services could look like when grounded in open, agile, human-centered principles. Known as Alpha, the three-month project was the precursor to what is now the California Office of Digital Innovation.

Alpha and COVID leader Angelica Quirarte told Government Technology at the time:

“I think it also introduces a different way of civic engagement. How does the public now know what government does to deliver their work? The fact that you can have a member of the public add a task or ask us a question and literally see us work as we’re moving through the process, it’s just not something that’s very common in government. It’s not a relationship that they public is probably used to. I’m really excited to see many more comments come through.”

And Michael Wilkening, then special adviser on innovation and digital services in the Office of the Governor:

“I’m doing this very much as a much broader effort than just CA.gov. This is really helping with the foundation of how [the Office of Digital Innovation [ODI] will operate and how we should be thinking about doing other things. … This is part of that overall reconceptualization and reinvigorating the relationship between Californians and their government and rebasing it. CA.gov should really be an embodiment of what that relationship looks like and it should be the place where people come to find out about California government, where they come to find out about services, how they access those services, ultimately it should be the place where they’re coming to apply for those sorts of benefits.”

Alpha’s impact

The experience of that three-month project still lives in the DNA of every member (and core stakeholder) of the Alpha team.

If you talk to the leaders of California’s pandemic digital response team (many of whom were on Alpha), you’ll find the work and lessons learned from Alpha played a critical role in successfully launching and building the COVID website, which was perhaps the most agile technology projects in the state’s digital government history.

Lessons from Alpha are showing up elsewhere, from the state’s new cannabis portal to the new California Web Design System and, undoubtedly, in the form of recent changes to California’s own Department of Technology.

California’s next Alpha

Aside from a few government technology trade press articles, Alpha’s work remains mostly a footnote. And as it morphed into ODI, despite having an amazing team, it has yet to find its place within the state’s larger innovation ecosystem.

Alpha’s culture, tools, technology and systems thinking approach to operations is something California’s TMF participants should adopt if it’s going to realize a return on that $25 million investment.

Hopefully, there’s at least one state entity who will use that funding, seek out Alpha members still with ODI, and be the next Alpha.

Alpha mode

Adopting Alpha mode isn’t easy and not for the organizational faint-hearted, particularly for well-established bureaucracies or technology leaders complacent in dated tools and practices.

Going Alpha must include:

  • Embracing a truly open, agile, emotionally intelligent, passionate culture
  • Becoming a learning organization
  • Working in the open (public issues, project boards and documentation)
  • Adopting asynchronous, collaborative tools (GitHub, Slack)
  • Continuously sharing the narrative publicly (regularly done/doing reports)

While these may seem unimportant, the were integral in the success of Alpha’s open, agile culture. Implementing them effectively took time and patience, even during an intense period of work.

While they seem trivial, they will not only inspire the individual projects, they will eventually change the DNA of your entire organization.

The $25 million answer

Alpha can scale and revolutionize how we deliver government digital services to the people of California. We just need our technology leaders to be ready to openly embrace new tools and ways of operating.

During its send-off event, California’s technology leaders heard presentations by team members on how it was executed, lessons learned and the potential for other Alphas throughout the state.

After the presentations, there was a question and answer session, and an agency chief information officer raised his hand and asked, “How do we scale this across all California agencies?”

He asked the $25 million question.

Fortunately, the state already has its answer.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is founder of GovFresh. He is the co-founder and CEO of ProudCity.

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