The End of the Beginning of Digital Service Units

Balancing Users, Platforms, and Buy-in Strategies for National Digital Teams

This week, digital HKS is partnering with Public Digital to convene digital services units from around the world. We will talk about what is and, more importantly, what is not working, with their work. Our intention is to make this an annual gathering where digital service groups can exchange learnings, explore shared challenges, converge around common language and frameworks and identify research questions.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

We are at an interesting time for digital service units. One the one hand, the novelty and newness of these teams has worn off; on the other hand, there is growing acceptance by many governments that these teams are useful tool in driving new practices, particularly agile development processes and user centric design. Less clear, but still a possibility, is the key question of whether these units can enable the deeper digital transformation that will prompt a fundamental rethink in how technology could re-shape governments for the 21st century.

At the project level we’ve seen some very promising successes. While at the enterprise level — trying to answer the key question about deeper digital transformation— there are few dramatic results. So, on the whole, no unqualified successes, but given the magnitude of the task and the size of the governments this is a tall ask. And, to counter, few failures and lots of tactical wins.

Equally important, a lot has been learned. So much so that we now stand at the end of the beginning for digital services units. The end of the beginning, because a rough consensus around a “north star” and general tactics has emerged. And not the end, as we are both far from the end of the journey and have earned ample license to carry on.

Some Background

Since the founding of the UK Government Digital Service in 2011, the number of digital service groups — teams of digital experts, often drawn from the commercial tech industry and combined with in house government talent, and tasked with “digitizing” government — has exploded. Today Peru, Argentina, United States, Mexico, Canada, Italy and Australia are just a few of the countries with such units, joining the ranks of long-evolving government technology programs in pioneers like Estonia, Israel and Singapore. In addition, a growing number of sub-national actors, such California, Ontario and Georgia also boast these teams. In the US, the United States Digital Service (USDS) has led projects across federal bureaucracies and produced public resources like the Digital Services PlaybookCollege Scorecard, and TechFAR Handbook. It is now training a new generation of digitally oriented procurement officers on technology procurement practices.

Where we are today

In short, as a form of both organizations and a theory of driving change, digital service groups are a relatively mature. Maybe not a mature practice, but certainly a mature experiment by this time.

We’re no longer in a development phase when digital services has to prove its need to exist in the first place; in most jurisdictions political awareness of the need to improve the delivery of online services is real. And in some (but hardly all) jurisdictions, public servants see the value in improved technology infrastructure and access. The model of digital service units has, for both good and ill, earned enough political capital to be given some runway and to continue the work that they do.

Equally important, two key pieces of the puzzle seem to have become clear. The first is a “North Star” to guide digital service teams on their journey. Specifically, whether they can build them today or not, creating or acquiring a core government platform (e.g., single sign on, payments, identity) is the end game most digital teams know they need to get to. Some digital service groups are able to work on these already. Others are too busy with specific projects, putting out fires, and or building credibility or capacity to engage in this work. However, creating common platforms to power governments services is key to digital transformation over the long term. If groups cannot work on it today, there is an emerging consensus that they should create the political capital and conditions, to enable them to steer towards this outcome.

The second piece of the puzzle has been validation that using an agile process to start with, and focus on, users is the among the most effective tactics for achieving short term success. Whether it is rolling out a new digital application for health care at Veterans Affairs or making it easier to assign power of attorney in the UK, user-centered projects yield real and tangible benefits for users and huge political value for elected officials. Focusing on users also serves as a way to cleave through bureaucracy and force divergent interests to adhere to a common goal.

This emerging consensus — steer towards building common platforms tools while using the focus on user needs to power you through projects on the way there — is helpful. It gives people a shared roadmap and common language and frameworks that transcend jurisdictions.

Challenges

While confirming that such a consensus exists will be one helpful goal of the convening, so to will be understanding shared challenges.

Interestingly, these two trends mentioned above can be in competition. Focusing on the user’s satisfaction against all other goals can turn digital services groups into web design shops that roll out functional and pretty websites — but accomplish little in the way of deeper transformation, particularly in underlying legacy systems. On the opposite end of the spectrum, focusing exclusively on building platform services can be hard to pull off without real needs and users to validate against. More importantly, not working on complete services cause units to not demonstrate short-term tangible benefits to citizens (and therefore their elected officials).

Plotting digital services on this matrix could help identify shared theories of change and approaches

 

The other common challenge among many digital units we talk to is in how they negotiate for buy-in within their own bureaucratic context. Some have been granted (or grabbed) as much power and authority as possible to control digital projects across government. In some cases, this paid off. It can enforce standards and practices and prevent large, poorly designed projects that confuse and frustrate users, and prevent digital services from getting off the ground in the first place. It also often creates major political challenges. Those whose projects are killed or whose practices must adapt can become competitors and even opponents within the government.

Other teams focus on gently cajoling government partners and organizations to go along; they upsell the potential savings of a website redesign, trumpet the happiness of core users when they interact with new tools, and home in on how shared services allow more differentiated value. Building consensus can be great, but it can also take time, and without enforcement mechanisms may ultimately prove to weak to prompt an enterprise wide shift.

And of course, while digital service groups may be mature experiments, surviving transitions in government is always a critical challenge. Ensuring there is multi-party support and that there is continuity even as administrations change — like the work of most public servants — is essential.

If This is the End of the Beginning, What’s Next?

The exciting part about being at the end of the beginning is that the model of digital service units has been sufficiently validated that more and more governments will likely experiment with them over the coming 5 years. In addition, these new groups will benefit from a clearer roadmap and lessons learned from those who came before.

In addition, I suspect that expectations have been more appropriately calibrated. For better or for worse, political masters now expect incremental wins on a project by project basis — not enterprise transformation.

So what’s next? In the short term the north star and tactics outlined above answer that question. Continue to deliver value on projects, drive agile methodologies and user focused approaches while nudging towards platform services. The key is to maintain or build political capital —or what my colleague Mark Moore refers to as capacity for authority — to prepare for the next phase.

Because, as hard as it is to believe, today is likely the easiest part of the journey. Behind us is the hard part of starting up. Today is about building capital and capacity. What’s next in the mid term…? Along slow battle over what the structure and shape of government will look like. And making progress on that I fear will be infinitely more difficult and painful than improving services on a project by project basis.

This piece was written by David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy at HKS and Ben McGuire, an HKS student.

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