Digital service (DS) teams across the public sector are working to improve how services are delivered to residents. These teams exist at all levels of government and are iteratively using data, technology, and human-centered design to reframe how residents interact with government.
Over the summer, Georgetown University students Ryan Powers and Joyce Bai, embedded with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and the State of Colorado Digital Services Office to learn more about digital service teams. The Beeck Center provided them a platform to share their experiences and observations via a webinar hosted by the Digital Service Network and the U.S. Digital Response.
What are Digital Service Teams, and How Do They Work?
Ryan and Joyce define DS as “interdisciplinary, collaborative teams in government that use technology, research, and software development techniques to deliver high-quality services quickly and affordably.”
DS teams can help bring policy decisions to life by creating technology solutions to deliver new products and services to residents. DS teams can also modernize existing government services to improve residents’ experiences.
One of the first DS teams in the United States is the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), founded in 2014. Today, DS teams can be found at all levels of government.
Two main frameworks for how DS teams approach their work were shared:
- Engagement Model: In this model, there is one central team that looks for government technology projects it can be involved in, paying close attention to timelines, purpose, and mandate. The DS team can then offer help in the form of personnel and expertise, lending employees to the state agency or department. The team is embedded for short periods of time. This model is more common among newer DS teams and in smaller jurisdictions.
- Hub-and-Spoke Model: In this model, there’s a “hub” team that addresses projects that come up, builds technological capacity among lawmakers and in law-making and provides support on government-wide projects that may have a technology component. There are also many “spoke” teams that, similarly to the Engagement Model, embed within departments or agencies for extended periods to work on specific projects. Since these teams are typically present for longer timeframes, they often have more ownership of the projects. This model is more common among larger teams and jurisdictions where more resources may be available. The USDS follows this model.
Best Practices from the Colorado Digital Service (CDS)
Founded in 2019, CDS is a diverse cross-functional team of engineers, human-centered design specialists, product experts, and procurement experts. Their mission is to help state agencies deliver high-quality products and services to the people of Colorado through a unique approach. They use a tiered approach combining people, processes, and technology.
CDS implements human-centered design practices into its procurement process to ensure people are at the center of everything they do. They take a user-focused approach to scoping new procurement projects, taking into account their users and what they need from the technology.
CDS includes the community members that it is building products and services as well as internal stakeholders and government partners. CDS immerses themselves in the process; by becoming true partners with the internal team at the state department administering the policy.
Team members get to know the different aspects of the policy. Part of that happens because team members are intimately involved in the processes surrounding the policy and local policy ecosystem. This ensures team members get to know the different stakeholders, their needs, interests, and what they require in the technology.
CDS implements human-centered design practices into its procurement process to ensure people are at the center of everything they do. They take a user-focused approach to scoping new procurement projects, taking into account its users and what they need from the technology.
- CDS approach projects through an agile, flexible, and collaborative development process that emphasizes overall outcomes over optics or simply satisfying requirements along the way. With an agile approach, there are milestones along the way that guide participants, but the team retains the flexibility to pivot. An agile, iterative approach accommodates continuous feedback and improvement. It also allows end users to inform the whole process instead of just at the beginning.
- CDS guides engagements using a product roadmap that prioritizes strategy over requirements. This gives the team and internal stakeholders critical context for the work and keeps the project moving toward the right outcome.
- CDS breaks down the often siloed nature of government technology projects. By becoming true partners with the agencies they work with, CDS can fully understand the problems they are working to solve and coordinate efforts towards a solution.
- CDS prioritizes how the technology functions and is experienced by the user. CDS ensures that technology is effective, fulfills its intent, and solves the problem in question. There are several concerns the team must consider during this step. These include the various kinds of systems involved and how those systems interact. Other considerations include data and technology ownership, such as who is responsible for data maintenance and recovery and incorporating modern data governance practices.
- CDS prioritizes the end user and emphasizes usability. In government technology and service delivery, there may be some inertia if there are existing systems and infrastructure, even if those resources may not be the best options for new projects or have been the target of negative user feedback. CDS takes into account the fact that it may be logistically easier to utilize pre-existing technologies, but identifying the technology that is best for the user is more important and often vital to a project’s success.
- CDS remains flexible and agile. Programs continue to mature even beyond the implementation process. Technology needs to not only satisfy current requirements but also seamlessly include changes to the mission as the project continues to evolve. This requires forethought on the part of the implementation team. They must look ahead and consider future needs and wants. More broadly, this also requires the understanding of the constant evolution and the importance of the team remaining agile to respond accordingly.
Digital service teams help transform government services for the better across policy domains by making them more user-centered.
- DS teams work in an increasingly complex environment. DS teams work in an often nonlinear process where policy decisions occur in parallel with technology and design decisions. Aligning policy — which is typically unchanging and finalized – with technology and design – which is often iterative – can be challenging. This is why, like CDS, DS teams must ensure they remain agile and build technology that can do the same. If policy decisions happen at the same time as technology and design decisions and if the DS team is responsive to user’s inputs, then the policy decisions will more accurately reflect the needs in practice. If agile DS teams can use complexity as a strength, they can create the best possible product for users and ensure policy is utilized to the fullest extent.
- DS teams can be involved in policy decisions. Legislation is often ambiguous, omitting program details at a granular level, which means implementation must consider how policy actually works in practice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as this allows implementation teams – who have the most knowledge of end-user needs – the room to make decisions that are most reflective of user needs.
- Change management is vital for DS teams. DS teams are responsible for evolving certain systems so it results in a better product or service for users. This also requires that DS teams bring along various stakeholders and rework certain processes from preexisting infrastructure and ensure everyone’s needs are met.
- Making user-centered design a central part of government service delivery is extremely impactful. It can be as simple as asking “Who are my end users?” and “What are they saying?” You don’t need a large, well-resourced team to start implementing user-centered design. In the end, a process that incorporates user-centered design can save time, effort, and money, giving residents a better experience in the end.
Government CAN and DOES innovate! It’s common to hear the phrase “good enough for government” when talking about big projects, but this is a misnomer. There are teams like CDS all over the country proving it to be false.
Another Win for Digital Service
The Colorado Digital Service team is just one of many fantastic examples of digital transformation occurring across the public sector. We hope this encourages DS teams and practitioners across the country to continue the great work they do. We also hope it inspires localities without a digital service team to consider creating one.
The Digital Service Network shares what works in government digital transformation, with a goal of replicating and scaling proven approaches. We help leading digital service teams and practitioners continue to succeed and connect newcomers to training, technical assistance, and community support as they chart a new course in their governments. The project is based at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.
Video of the one-hour session with Ryan Powers and Joyce Bai, which informed this blog, can be found on the Beeck Center’s YouTube channel.