From Kazakhstan to the UK, U.S. governments at all levels can—and should—look to other countries around the globe for lessons on advancing digitization and access to public services. The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation has recently been engaging internationally to better understand diverse approaches to technological innovation for public service, with the eventual goal of helping replicate some of these at home.
Through this extensive global engagement, the Beeck Center has celebrated the opportunity to share experiences and initiatives with others across the world, yet it has also shone a light on where the U.S. can improve its own digital innovation efforts.
Shaping new ideas through international collaboration
In October, Beeck Center’s Executive Director Lynn Overmann and Fellow Dominic Campbell spoke on the opening panel at the Solace Summit, a three-day conference in Birmingham, England, that hosted 400 senior leaders from local governments in the UK, as well as visitors from around the world. Overmann and Campbell joined Marc Stears—director of University College London’s Policy Lab—to reflect on government transformation in both the U.S. and UK since 2010. The panel shared thoughts on what countries can learn from this journey when imagining the inevitable acceleration of government change in the coming decade.
Above all, the panel pointed to the role of strategic leadership in navigating through transitions in government administration, particularly the shifting nature of federal relations with state and local governments. Beyond DC and Westminster, panelists also highlighted a shift in the way other governments are partnering with communities and focusing on putting citizens at the heart of public services—a trend that is set to continue and be supercharged as institutions take one redesign and modernization efforts.
Overmann also met with several leaders in the digital governance space in the UK, including Public Digital and Nesta. Public Digital—a global consultancy that hires, develops, and supports digital teams and services—is made up primarily of former members of the founding team of the UK Digital Service, and now consults to governments around the world to support them on the route to digitization. At Nesta—an innovation agency for social change—the Beeck team met with Chief Practices Officer James Plunkett to discuss the role of external bodies in government innovation who are shaping change through multi-disciplinary teams.
In December, the Beeck team welcomed a Japanese Digital Services delegation to the Beeck Center to discuss opportunities and challenges around innovation in service design and delivery. The representatives from Japan highlighted difficulties related to their country’s insulated government and a lack of familiarity with new technology. Overmann, Campbell, and Beeck Fellow Aaron Snow spoke about small recent successes in the U.S. around the federal government’s online COVID-19 test ordering initiative, and the launch of new digital tools for state and local governments, but stressed that the U.S still has a long way to go in its digital service-delivery work.
Catching Up: Where the U.S. is Lagging in Digital Service Design
While this international engagement has led to a positive sharing of ideas, it also proves that the U.S. has significant work to do in order to be on par with other countries’ and organizations’ digital systems and adoption of digital services.
In November, Snow and Beeck Center former analyst Ashlee Sellung joined Bogdan Ivanel—CEO of Commit Global—for a meeting at the White House to learn more about the organization’s “civil society infrastructure” and the open-source software emergency response systems they have built and deployed in several countries. One such initiative has allowed more than 1.4 million Ukrainian refugees to find reliable and timely information through the dopomoha.ro platform. Commit Global works directly with humanitarian organizations and government agencies to provide useful, up-to-date information in four different languages through the site.
In October, the Beeck Center hosted a delegation from Kazakhstan, organized by the Eurasia Foundation, to discuss the country’s whole-of-government digitization initiative. During these meetings, Beeck learned about their model, saw a demo of their digitization work, and discussed the difficulties of this kind of work in the American context. Kazakhstan’s success in the digitization of public services and documents is just one example of many countries taking strong steps toward improving public service delivery through technology.
“The awkward truth is, 10 years on, that the US is now lagging quite seriously,” Campbell said. “Kazakhstan showed that. We were like, ‘I don’t know how much we have to teach you.’”
Centering digital transformation in government
Ukraine has also had significant success in their digital transformation, successfully creating a platform to facilitate digital service delivery and digital documentation and identification. Led by Snow, the Beeck Center has had ongoing conversations about the country’s recent digital advancements with Gulsanna Mamediieva, a tech and public policy research fellow at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and director general for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration in Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation. Beeck is working toward formalizing a partnership with the ministry to explore the success of their government’s “Diia” app, which allows for convenient and secure interaction between the government and Ukrainian citizens. Ukraine was the first country with a digital ID valid everywhere in the country, and aims to make 100 percent of public services available online in the coming years.
“Part of it’s about the code, but part of it’s about political prioritization,” Snow said. “It’s about how you manifest that in your government hierarchy and authorities. That’s the tricky bit.”
This international engagement at the Beeck Center coincides with the global lens that both Snow and Campbell have applied to their work throughout their careers: Snow as the first CEO of the Canadian Digital Service and Campbell as the founder and former CEO of FutureGov, a UK-based consultancy that helped bring digital and design to governments around the world. It also builds upon efforts from the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Network, who hosted a discussion in March 2022 with the UK’s Public Digital team focused Universal Credit—an initiative to replace six social benefits and tax credits with a single, means-tested program to simplify the benefits system and take a “digital by default” approach. Last November, the Beeck Center hosted a panel and workshop at FWD50 and Snow returned to the conference this November to discuss the use of open source software in government systems.
“I think a lot of the lessons that came out of these meetings was that America is great at funding, and inventing,” Campbell said. “But when it comes to adoption and mainstreaming of all of these tools and techniques, we’ve got a real problem in the US in terms of making mass adoption happen and the US really needs to sort of catch up.”
As the Beeck Center connected with international experts and officials throughout 2023, it’s evident that while the U.S. continues to spearhead innovation, there exists a clear need for increased adoption and integration of digital tools within the government. Moving forward, the Beeck Center remains committed to bridging these gaps and facilitating the exchange of ideas to drive meaningful digital transformation in service delivery.