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The Move to Digital Government Requires More Than Just Tech

Processes, power and people are also crucial elements.

This is part two 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. You can find all of the articles in this series here.


Expanding and improving government digital services requires not only technology, but also processes, power and people. It is only with these three additional factors working in sync that process and business gains can be made using technology.

  1. Processes and Systems

“Technology is an enabler of digital, it is not an end in itself.” – Katherine Benjamin

People underestimate the amount of organizational change needed to do digital work in government. Governments are traditionally risk averse, for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are stewards of public money. As a result, the environment that most public servants work in is one that disincentivizes them from trying new approaches.

The challenge to making governments digital-first organizations lies in changing the culture of the government, this includes addressing the way decisions are made, understanding how structures and processes are established, and creating the conditions necessary for people to be responsive to new ways of working.

  1. Power Dynamics

“Digital-first products/services driven organizations are deeply disruptive to historic ways of making decisions.” – Katherine Benjamin

In the private technology sector, decision making power is more likely to lie with the team, specifically a product owner. Meaning that the product owner would be the one who makes the decisions that shape a product. The product owner acts as a liaison between their team, customers and leadership. They are also involved with managing customer expectations with the findings made by the team through user research and product testing. As a result, decisions made about the design of a product are more likely to be centered on the users’ experiences, as this becomes a proxy for sales or customer satisfaction. 

In government, there is a top-down power structure. It is not uncommon for senior leadership to weigh in heavily on product direction in ways that may not be helpful to building a user-centered product. As a result, digital government teams may describe a conundrum that has them torn between respecting government history and hierarchy, and respecting user-driven processes that are facilitated and addressed when doing digital work in government.

  1. People

“Technology is the easy part. Coordinating the people, the sequence, the sign-off, the change in how people are used to operating - that is the hard part.” – Katherine Benjamin

The most difficult digital maturity work involves helping people get comfortable enough to work in a different way. This means navigating complex and deeply rooted processes to get approval and cover to try something new.

For example, doing user research is a fairly simple and straightforward process. It requires a topic guide, consent forms, someone to interview and in some cases compensation. But in government, user research is a fairly new way of working and one that most government  employees are unfamiliar with. As a result, the process for getting sign off on such a project involves multiple people throughout the organization who may be concerned about the risk and potential liability of trying something new. Questions modern digital service teams have had to answer include: 

  • Are we legally allowed to do user research?
  • How can an unfinished product be shown to the public, if a requirement to make the product public is that it is fully complete?
  • How is the user research going to be done? Who are we talking to and how do we find them? 

There are many other questions raised, all of which require some type of sign off or approval as well as budget and procurement to put in place the basic element of digital government work. Thus, patience is needed when working with employees who are trying something new for the first time, and for digital service teams working to demonstrate “new ways of work” in contexts where few of the necessary preconditions exist to facilitate this transformation.

Partnership principles from the Canadian Digital Service, Code for Canada, Code for America, 18F the U.S. Digital Service and others, were compiled and shared to help government digital services teams overcome these hurdles. These principles can be used to navigate the complexity and uniqueness of government by offering guideposts for anyone working on digital transformation or change management projects. 

The partnership principle are:

  1. Practice empathy and humility when they see something and feel frustrated.
  2. Assume competence in colleagues, clients and the public.
  3. Assume that everyone the organization is working with is doing their best work for the public.
  4. Listen carefully and actively.
  5. Ask questions and seek to understand partners’ contexts. 
  6. Be mindful of the impact words, actions and approaches have on others.
  7. Encourage others to listen as much as they speak.
  8. Prioritize access for, and input from, those who have been excluded from the civic process in the past.

Government employees are often under pressure to meet different needs and work on different projects. As digital experts it can be intimidating for other people who don’t have technical skills, and create a power imbalance. The partnership principles offer a reminder of how to introduce change in organizations, especially for new employees or positions.

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

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