Making a Successful Shift to Digital-first Government
As they transition to providing more services online, there are ways governments can get creative working around talent shortages and entrenched bureaucracies.
This is part one of a three-part “Digital Government 101” series, showcasing the work of New York City's Office of Technology and Innovation, shared in partnership with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. The Beeck Center and the U.S. Digital Response are coordinating a new peer learning network for people working in digital government, the Digital Service Network. The DSN is a growing network that connects and supports digital service teams and professionals so government is responsive, open, and accessible to everyone. The insights in this series are from presentations by Katherine Benjamin, the deputy chief technology officer for digital services in the Office of Technology and Innovation and Alexis Wichowski, the office's deputy chief technology officer for inclusive innovation.
Governments are transforming the way they operate, using new technologies and revamped processes to improve services and residents’ experiences. Historically, most government processes were centered around physical service delivery. Now, governments are starting to position themselves as digital-first organizations. Yet, governments’ lack of experience being digital by default, coupled with an ongoing shortage of in-house technology talent, has left them scrambling to keep up with technology needs.
The Importance of Digital Services
Governments are investing in digital services for multiple reasons. Residents have come to expect digital offerings because that is what they receive from the private sector and they desire comparable services from government. People want services to be easy and to fit into their busy lives. For example, residents do not want to take time off work to stand in line to pay for a parking ticket. Other residents may face challenges engaging in in-person services due to a range of lived experiences with sight, hearing, mobility and language. For many, well designed digital services can eliminate barriers to accessing services in person.
Governments depend on residents to engage in services for a range of important reasons, such as obtaining food handling permits to ensure broader public health needs are met. Scaling up digital transactions can reduce costs—such as staffing and printing—that governments otherwise incur by providing physical services. In the United Kingdom, the Government Digital Service and its UK.gov website saved the British government more than $4.1 billion. Going digital increases the speed and efficiency at which services can be delivered by automating work, and digital infrastructure provides more accountability and transparency through processes like opening data to the public.
The Talent Crisis
Governments are getting creative with hiring to address their talent gaps. Some are partnering with organizations like Code for America and U.S. Digital Response to bring in digital talent from the private sector. One example of this type of partnership is the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows program. Launched in February 2020, the partnership brings in designers, developers and project managers with private sector experience to create and improve existing digital products in a 10-week sprint.
But the government and private technology sectors operate very differently. Government is hierarchical and siloed, while the private sector is more flat and connected. This is in part because governments have processes and histories that are deeply rooted in bureaucracy. Bureaucracy helps to ensure that government work conforms to local, state and federal laws, and is fiscally responsible.
To help NYC[x] Innovation fellows get oriented working in government, the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation put together a crash course for digital-era talent. The courses Government 101 and Digital Government 101 are specifically designed to help ease the transition for fellows new to the public sector and to allow them to hit the ground running.
Due to the sheer amount of digital work that is needed, governments most likely will continue to rely on temporary staff to fill talent gaps caused by austerity and limited resources. It’s critical for government agencies to take the time to help temporary digital staff members understand the culture and processes of their offices to ensure they can navigate bureaucracies and contribute to the effective launch of digital projects.
About the Author:
Sarah Rodriguez is a Digital Services team researcher for the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. She previously was a systems and data designer for the Center for Excellence and Innovation at the city of Austin and was previously a Bloomberg i-team fellow at the city’s Innovation Office. She has worked on a number of projects, including service access, digital transformation, homelessness and equity in policing technology.
About the Digital Service Network:
The Digital Service Network (DSN) connects and supports digital service teams and professionals so government is responsive, open and accessible to everyone. Join the DSN mailing list today and help us build a collaborative network of digital government leaders and best practices. DSN peer learning is supported by the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, and the US Digital Response.
About the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation:
The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University brings together students, expert practitioners and extended networks to work on projects that solve societal challenges using data, design, technology and policy. Our projects test new ways for public and private institutions to leverage data and analytics, digital technologies and service design to help more people. For more information, please visit beeckcenter.georgetown.edu.