Tag Archives: GDS

The Future of USDS: Trump, civic tech and the lesson of GDS

Across Washington, the country, and the world, the assumptions people have about various programs, policies and roles have been radically altered in the last 12 hours with the victory of President-Elect Trump. Many of my students and colleagues have asked me — what does this mean for the future of United States Digital Service and 18F? What should it mean?

This is not the most important question facing the administration. But for those of us in this space the question matters. Intensely. And we need a response. USDS and 18F improve how Americans interact with their government while saving significant amounts of money. Democrats and Republicans may disagree over the size of government, but there is often less disagreement over whether a service should be effectively and efficiently delivered. Few in either party believe a veteran should confront a maze of forms or confusing webpages to receive a service. And, the fact is, massive IT failures do not have a party preference. They have and will continue to burn any government without a clear approach of how to address them.

So what will happen now?

The first risk is that the progress made to date will get blown up. That anything attributed to the previous administration will be deemed bad and have to go. I’ve spent much of the morning reaching out to Republican colleagues, and encouraging those I know in the community to do the same. What I’ve heard back is that the most plausible scenario is nothing happens. Tech policy sits pretty low on the priority list. There will be status quo for likely a year while the administration figures out what is next.

That said, if you are a Republican who cares about technology and government, please reach out. I can connect you with Jen Pahlka who would be happy to share her understanding of the current challenges and how the administration can use USDS to ensure this important work continues. There are real challenges here that could save billions and ensure Americans everywhere are better served.

The second risk is implosion. Uncertainty about what will happen to USDS and 18F could lead to a loss of the extraordinary talent that make the organizations so important.

Each employee must decide for themselves what they will do next. Those I’ve had the privilege to engage with at USDS, 18F or who served as Presidential Innovation Fellows have often displayed a sense of duty and service. The divisive nature of the campaign has created real wounds for some people. I don’t want to pretend that that is not the case. And, the need to push governments to focus on users, like Dominic, is no less diminished. Across Washington, there are public servants who did not vote Republican who are returning to their jobs to serve the best they can. The current administration has been effective in issuing a call to arms to civic technologists to help government. Now, having created a critical mass of civic technologists in DC, can it hold to continue to have the influence and grow the capabilities a 21st century government needs? Maintaining this critical mass is a test that any effort to institutionalize change must clear.

If you work for USDS or 18F, there are maps. The Government Digital Service was created by a partnership between a Conservative Minister (Francis Maude) and a group of liberal technologists (Mike Bracken et al). I doubt either party was naturally comfortable with the other at first, but an alliance was made and both its strengths and its flaws could serve as one template for a way to move forward.

My own sense is the work of USDS and 18F must be bigger than any one administration or party. For some this is a painful conversation, for others it is an easy conclusion. I understand both perspectives.

But in either case, there must be a dialogue around this work. So please, both sides. Find a way to talk. There is certainly a need for that in the country.

If there is anything we can do at Harvard Kennedy School to convene actors on either side of the aisle to help find a path forward for this work, please let me know. This work is important, and I hope it will not be lost.

Addendum: Just saw Naoh Kunin’s piece on why he is staying. Again, everyone has to make their choice, but believe in the conversation.

The Empire Strikes Back: How the death of GDS puts all government innovators at risk

The UK Government Digital Service(GDS) is dead. I’m sure it will continue to exist in some form, but from what I’ve read it appears to have been gutted of its culture, power and mandate. As a innovator and force for pulling the UK government into the 21st century, it’s over.

The UK government comms people, and the new head of GDS himself will say otherwise, but read between the lines of the stories as well as what former GDS people are saying, and it’s clear: GDS is dead.

These narratives are also aligned as to why. GDS was killed by what the Brits call “Whitehall.” This is short form for the inner and elite circles of the UK public service somewhat cruelly depicted in “Yes, Minister.” Their motive? GDS represented a centralization of IT control, and the departments — for whom GDS frequently found savings of tens of millions of pounds and provided effective online services on behalf of— didn’t like seeing their autonomy and budget sucked away by a group of IT geeks.

Losing GDS is a tragedy for the UK. But the downside isn’t limited to just the UK. It represents a blow to efforts to rethink and digitize governments around the world.

Why?

Because the debates over how governments work are not domestic (they haven’t been for a long time). GDS inspired innovators and politicians everywhere who were hungry for models of how governments could function in a digital age. Copycats sprang up around the world, such as the Digital Transformation Office in Australia and the United States Digital Service in the US at the national level, as well as others at the regional and local level. (For example, the Province of Ontario, which has a fantastic digital team, is currently hiring a Chief Digital Officer to lead a similar type of org.)

While working independently, these organizations share a common sense of mission and so trade best practices and lessons. More importantly, a few years ago they benefited from a massive asymmetry in information. They understood just how disruptive the innovation they were seeking to implement could be. And not from a technology perspective, but to the organizational structure and distribution of power within the public service.

As it became clearer to the rest of the public service in the UK just how far-reaching GDS’s vision was, and how much thinking digitally challenges the way senior public servants in places like Whitehall think… that asymmetry in knowledge and capacity didn’t diminish, but the asymmetry in awarenessand implications did. And so the center fought back. And it has far more power than any GDS might.

But it isn’t just in the UK. I suspect the existence of GDS and its global network has activated a global counter-movement among senior mandarins. Public servants are connected across international borders by shared alma maters, common international organizations and professional groups, cross-border projects, etc.… don’t think for a second that that global network hasn’t been activated (particularly among Treasury Board officials) to what some see as a new threat.

To be clear, this isn’t a GDS good, Whitehall bad piece. For anything to fail there is probably some shared responsibility. And assigning blame doesn’t really matter. What I care about it preserving what I and many others believe are important efforts to modernize governments so that the effectiveness of government, and trust in its institutions, are maintained.

So what does matter is, if you work for a digital service outside the UK, it is time to go double down on political cover and/or to reach out to the senior public servants around you and build some alliances. Because your Whitehall equivalent definitely has relationships with the UK Whitehall, and they are asking them what they think and know about GDS, and their story probably isn’t a good one.

The empire of traditional siloed bureaucracy is fighting back. You probably won’t beat it. So how are you going to engage it?