How Kirsten Wyatt’s vision for digital service has grown to over 3,000 government practitioners

When Kirsten Wyatt was an undergraduate student at Willamette University in Oregon, interning part-time in the Oregan Secretary of State’s office, she witnessed firsthand the transition to vote-by-mail voting in order to improve voter turnout. Oregon was the first state to transition to an entirely vote-by-mail system, seeing a significant increase in voter participation including a 79% turnout in the 2000 presidential election and 86% in 2004, according to the Oregon Secretary of State office. 

“It was a really important moment to realize that everybody can have a voice,” Wyatt said. “Everybody can have a perspective to offer to government.” 

From there, Wyatt never looked back on government work. From an early age, public service was baked into Wyatt’s childhood, as both her parents worked in government and she grew up in Olympia, the capital of Washington state, surrounded by the public service mission of helping others. 

“The idea of finding ways that government could improve the lives of other people was really just a huge part of my life growing up,” Wyatt said. 

After college, Wyatt entered the field of city management and decided to enroll in a graduate program at the University of North Carolina, focusing her degree specifically on local government management, where she felt she could make the most difference. After finishing her degree and working for the Virginia Department of Education, Wyatt decided to return to the west coast, moving to Oregan and starting a role as a financial analyst for the city of West Linn, Oregon. She was soon promoted to assistant city manager for the city, where she stayed for the next ten years. 

“I deeply love local government and love the ability of localities to make a difference in the world and in the lives of citizens,” Wyatt said. 

During her time in West Linn, Wyatt founded Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL), an organization that gathers leaders from all levels of local government together to foster meaningful connections and share new ideas. ELGL, which started as a 16-person lunch, has now grown to include 4,800 members, representing all 50 states as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Australia. 

“I realized that as much as I love government and government service, what I also really love is supporting the people that do that work,” Wyatt said. “So the idea of building networks was kind of like a second wave in my career. So, how do we find ways to support people doing the work?” 

This passion for building networks to support local government leaders is what eventually drew Wyatt to the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, where she now leads the Digital Service Network (DSN), which gathers together leaders in digital service and encourages human-centered strategies to deliver services. 

“I jumped at the chance to do what I had long believed in with the ways that government uses technology and innovation to promote a new way of providing services,” Wyatt said. 

Wyatt loves government and public service, but the work is not easy. Wyatt recalls the common challenges public servants face, especially when constituents are not satisfied with government, and believes that the work can be much more positive when leaders have a group or network with which to share experiences and challenges.

“Public service work is hard, it can be demoralizing,” Wyatt said. “I just have a deep belief that when we connect people doing this work there is a much stronger likelihood that they are going to stay in the field and do that work.” 

Now, at the Beeck Center, Wyatt has combined this passion of network building and bringing people together with digital service delivery techniques. At the DSN, Wyatt and her team recognize the importance of centering citizens in service delivery, and encouraging the use of digital techniques that simplify government services and maximize impact. 

To Wyatt, the concept of digital service inherently centers the people who interact with the government, finding better ways to deliver services in more efficient ways to the people who need them. 

“One thing that we are really focused on is how do we let people know that anyone can be a technologist,” Wyatt said. “Now, it really is on anyone that works in government to think through the lens of how people interact with the service that they’re providing.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the DSN’s mission of driving digital service approaches became more important than ever as work across the country was taken online and everyone became more attune to digitalization. Finding new and innovative ways to provide these services and share them with other local governments became a central focus for the team. To Wyatt, the pandemic served as a wake-up call to many governments that services could, and should, transition to digital platforms. The DSN played an especially important role after governments had initially acquired digital products or services and were later reflecting on the future of digitalization. 

“It’s an interesting time because people reacted, and now they’re reflective,” Wyatt said. “So we want to harness that and capture that and allow in that reflection to learn from each other, and think about how all these things fit together.” 

While the DSN helps government leaders innovate and develop new and efficient ways to deliver services, it also serves as a reminder to the network’s members that their work matters and provides a community.

“People realize that they’re not alone in doing this work,” Wyatt said. “I think it’s really that love and joy and friendship that comes along with building a network that’s meaningful, that empowers people to continue doing really good work.”