June 29, 2020 – By Conor Carroll and Giuseppe Morgana

COVID-19 has made the work of government agencies more critical than ever. States are fostering greater inter-department collaboration, innovating with the public, and ensuring their services are accessible to people in need. 

Digital service teams are partnering closely with experts across the government to accelerate this work. The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University launched a research project on these teams to learn from and share their approaches to implementing innovative methods. The State of New Jersey’s Office of Innovation is a partner in this project. The team’s work has informed this list of four important things to keep in mind for a faster, more coordinated COVID-19 response across government (whether or not your state has a formal digital service team).

#1: Design people-centered platforms for sharing information with the public

The COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of our government’s communication with the public. As policies frequently change and impact people’s daily lives in unprecedented ways, widespread public compliance with COVID-19 precautions is made possible by clear and broadly-accessible public information. The Office of Innovation focused on this imperative early on, and prioritized collaborating across government, and with private sector and non-profit partners to develop the tools needed to connect New Jerseyans with consistent, plain-language information about COVID-19

screenshot of New Jersey's Innovation Hub website
New Jersey’s COVID-19 Information Hub – covid19.nj.gov

A parallel effort, in collaboration with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), led to the creation of a user-friendly Q&A tool providing evidence-based information about COVID-19. This information was later integrated directly on New Jersey’s main COVID-19 Information Hub, and also made accessible to other government websites. Through a partnership with Yext, a cloud-based search provider which built the Information Hub with New Jersey, users are connected with the most relevant answers across these different sources via natural language search terms. To ensure the State’s websites reflected the latest policy updates, the Office of Innovation worked with the governor’s office and various other agencies to make the constant flow of updated information useful for the general public. Team members translated executive orders from complex “legalese” into easily-understandable answers to common questions, made content available in Spanish, and studied search analytics to determine which information to feature based on user demand. These content teams were able to coordinate effectively thanks to existing relationships from previous cross-agency projects catalyzed by the Office of Innovation.

This approach provided a great benefit to New Jersey as State employees focused on keeping State-specific information accurate and up-to-date, while also seamlessly providing fact-checked general information about COVID-19 directly on the site, powered by FAS through Ask a Scientist.

Translating an executive order to clear information for residents on covid19.nj.gov

Executive Order 107 mandated the closure of non-essential businesses. Examples of essential businesses could be found in the text of the order. 

screenshot of NJ Executive Order 107


The executive order was translated into a FAQ, easily searchable via covid19.nj.gov

Screenshot of NJ list of businesses that could remain open

The detailed information was translated into easy-to-understand responses, providing users immediate answers and enabling New Jersey to get the most accurate, current guidance directly to the public. 

Screenshot of "are pharmacies open" from NJ COVID-19 info page

#2: Identify and partner with external experts who can bring unique skills to augment internal capacity 

Unprecedented demand for public services and supplies, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), has put significant strain on existing IT and supply chain systems, requiring immediate responses. Traditional government processes for adopting new technologies and hiring new talent may not be designed for the urgency of these issues. But in this crisis environment, additional channels of support are available to augment and expand the capacity and capabilities of the public sector. 

The New Jersey team recognized the urgency of technology and supply chain shortfalls, and are addressing them with the support of skilled volunteers. Volunteers from the U.S. Digital Response, the national effort to provide data and digital support to all levels of U.S. government, were critical to developing the State’s Small Business Emergency Assistance Eligibility Wizard. Additionally, the innovation team worked closely with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and Rutgers’ Business School to recruit a team of volunteer supply chain experts from the private sector to perform a rapid assessment of the state’s supply chain situation and recommend industry-proven approaches to pilot and improve the State’s ability to make proactive, data-driven decisions about purchasing supplies. A team from the United States Digital Service also recently joined forces with the Office of Innovation and the State’s Department of Labor to conduct interviews with individuals who filed for unemployment benefits and use the insights to modernize aspects of the Unemployment Insurance Weekly Certification website, including an upcoming improvement to make the site mobile-friendly. 

Small Business Assistance Eligibility Wizard

This tool helps business owners check their eligibility for multiple state and federal assistance programs by answering a series of simple questions

Screenshot of Small Business Eligibility Wizard tool

#3: Use the urgency to address tech and design debt so problems are solved long-term

Innovation teams should work with procurement colleagues who understand options that exist both in normal times and during this crisis to expand or develop impactful partnerships that are in the best interest of the state and its residents. Many private sector partners have made their products, talent, and services available to be deployed in innovative projects at no cost at this time. Innovation teams can add value by understanding these opportunities and performing the diligence to ensure they follow best practices in building modern, responsive technology and will not be detrimental to the state in the long-term. In New Jersey, this has translated to multiple engagements with trusted vendor partners, meaning the team was able to bring in new types of external help more quickly. 

This crisis has revealed the true cost of delayed human-centered modernization of the systems that power our public services. Administrative systems have collapsed under the weight of unprecedented demand for public services. It is through these systems that our government delivers the services that we have legislated and prioritized, making it incredibly important that we ensure they work effectively in good times as well as in times of crisis. Our technical systems are a primary vehicle through which residents experience and interact with their government. The capabilities of our systems directly correspond to our ability to be responsive to the needs of the public. 

Digital service teams should use this time to address long-standing technical issues that have been on their reform agendas for years. There is an opportunity to partner closely with public agencies across government to understand their needs at this time and concurrently address long-standing technical debt – including supporting teams that are already working on these challenges across government.. Depending on capacity and resources available, modernization efforts can roll out in phases. The New Jersey team is working to make public-facing improvements to the user experience of legacy systems during this crisis, such as building an updated mobile-friendly Unemployment Insurance certification website, while also looking ahead to deeper engagements in the future—with considerations to add more functionality and move applications to the cloud for improved scalability. 

The upcoming improved, mobile-friendly unemployment insurance certification website developed in collaboration with the Department of Labor and United States Digital Service

screenshots of old, new, and mobile versions of New Jersey weekly unemployment certification sites

#4: Empower agency partners to co-develop and own new solutions 

Strong agency partners, and specifically the front-line agency workers, are crucial to successful innovation projects, with or without a public crisis. These partners bring subject matter expertise, local knowledge, and the ability to grow the solution after it is implemented. As government becomes increasingly digital, the design and resiliency of technology systems often define how responsive government can be in delivering services to the public. Given how essential these systems are to an agency’s mission, the agency must be empowered to own and refine these systems. Even the most well-designed technology solution will need to adapt to changing user needs, policies, or on-the-ground circumstances, and it is critical that the owning agency partner is positioned to continue to iterate and make the changes needed to be responsive in the long-term.  

Acting on values central to leading civic tech organizations, the New Jersey innovation team takes the approach of building with, not for, partners and users. This means taking the time to understand partners’ priorities and know what other projects they are working on. Teams across government are doing critical work to respond to the crisis, and it is important that partnerships are respectful of colleagues’ other efforts. Office of Innovation staff collaborates not only with the staff directly overseeing the issue, but also with other important stakeholders, like IT, legal, and communications teams. This approach cultivates a sense of ownership among partners and develops their capacity to deliver future projects with less direct involvement from the innovation team. By being directly involved in the work, agency colleagues contribute their expertise, become aware of existing resources available to them and develop new skills for delivering projects.

Conor Carroll is a researcher with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, conducting research with the New Jersey Office of Innovation. 

Giuseppe Morgana is the Digital Director for the New Jersey State Office of Innovation.

May 6, 2020 | By Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith

Only 13% of major government software projects succeed, and the successful and failed ones alike cost 5–10 times more than they should. When those projects fail, so too do the public policy initiatives that depend on them: unemployment insurance, small business loans, paid family and medical leave, SNAP, Medicaid, etc.

As we’ve seen in the response to the COVID-19 crisis even if lawmakers move quickly to pass legislation to get money to laid-off workers, small businesses, and hospitals, those policies can’t be implemented effectively when the technology tools used to apply for, distribute, and track funds can’t be easily modified or don’t work.

This is an egregious state of affairs. But we know it doesn’t have to be this way. At a time when technology allows us to order a new pair of shoes on our phone and have them delivered the next day, it’s increasingly clear that technology isn’t the problem, but instead how government currently procures technology and uses it to deliver service to the public.

Today, in an effort to begin solving this problem, we are starting the State Software Collaborative at the Beeck Center, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.

States need to take back control of the systems they rely on to fulfill their mission. Our goal is to help them do that, through a combination of teaching legislative staff about best practices to budget and provide oversight for major software projects, coaching agencies through using modern procurement practices, and teaching states how to center all of that work in modern software development practices (Agile software development, user-centered design, product thinking, DevOps, etc.)

By knitting together states’ agencies based on common needs, we can help states collaboratively procure, develop, and maintain the software they depend on, so instead of 50 states buying 50 versions of near-identical, overpriced software, they can procure high-quality, fair-priced software just once, and share it among themselves.

States’ needs differ substantially — because of different policies, laws, cultural norms, and technical environments — so it would be a mistake to expect as-is reuse of monolithic software projects. We expect the resulting software to be something like 80% complete, leaving room for the customization necessary to serve each state. We’ll coach states through procuring and managing scrum teams to complete the final 20%, documenting emergent best practices for other states to follow.

State governments have the subject-matter expertise, the funding, the technical knowledge, and the digital infrastructure that is necessary to deliver high-quality, technology-intermediated services to the public. They just need a little help bringing together that expertise from across states and establishing the processes and governance structure to execute on that promise, and that’s where the State Software Collaborative comes in.

We come to this project not as an academic exercise, but as practitioners with decades of experience in this subject. Robin is deeply familiar with government procurement processes from her time as Missouri’s Secretary of State and knows that states are the linchpin to our nation’s COVID-19 response, but as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, too often that work is made harder by old, hard to update and maintain legacy technology systems.

For the past four years we have helped state and local governments through our work at 18F, a tech consultancy inside the federal government General Services Administration, developing and promoting best practices for government procurement of custom software. At a time when states are on the front lines of the government’s COVID-19 response, they must take back control of systems they rely on to fulfill their mission.

The current crisis has shown how important it is for states to both learn from each other and work together in procuring critical supplies. We’ll continue to build on that collaborative spirit and states get the tools they need to support the country as we recover.

Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith joined the Beeck Center as fellows in Spring 2020. They will support the State Software Collaborative project as part of the Data + Digital portfolio. Follow Robin on Twitter at @robincarnahan and Waldo at @waldojaquith.

Photos by Mackenzie Weber & Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash.

April 1, 2020 | By Cori Zarek

About two weeks ago, as the realization of what COVID-19 might mean started to sink in, many of us instinctively checked in on our networks of family and friends. “Are you ok?” “Are you prepared to stay home for awhile?” “How about a Zoom catch-up?” “Do you have enough toilet paper?” 

The same was true for the network of civic-minded technologists we’re part of at the Beeck Center, only the calls were a bit different. Apart from checking on each other’s well-being (and toilet paper supply), our questions were more like this: “Are you ok?” “How bad is this going to be on our government systems?” And, perhaps most important, “What can we do?”

Most technologists in our network are not healthcare experts, epidemiologists, or otherwise qualified to opine on what front-line healthcare workers or average citizens should do to respond to COVID-19, but we are well equipped to understand the systems, websites, and people who keep our governments running and what they’re up against in a crisis like this. Many of us have spent time in government, navigating crises that strained or even shut down our websites and systems. We know the questions to ask, the decisions that need to be made, and where we can (and can’t) add value.

That’s why a handful of us formed U.S. Digital Response two weeks ago to support governments as they respond to COVID-19, to help them keep their websites and systems up and running so they can provide uninterrupted services like unemployment benefits, small business loans, or food stamps to people relying on government day in and day out. In just two weeks, 3,000 data scientists, engineers, human-centered designers and other tech leaders across the country have raised their hands to pitch in. 

Drawing on a trusted, well-networked coalition of organizations and individuals can set you up for greater success at any time, not just during a crisis. Over the past year at the Beeck Center, we have approached the public interest tech field as a coordinator and convener, bringing together data and digital leaders working in and around governments to collaborate on solving shared problems and scaling solutions back into the network in a project called the Digital Service Collaborative launched with The Rockefeller Foundation. Public interest technology projects — like many projects — draw partners who run fast at problems and work toward rapid solutions and, once solved, quickly turn to the next. This approach is understandable given government structures and the need to keep critical services running, but can inadvertently lead to problem solving in silos and doesn’t incentivize collaboration and information sharing. It can sometimes leave behind more vulnerable communities as well. 

At the Beeck Center, we are working to fill that gap in collaboration, information sharing, and trust building through all of our work. From streamlining the foster family licensing process to providing easier enrollment in safety net programs to standing up new user-focused service delivery teams, the projects we select and the networks we build around them intentionally identify government partners — both subject-matter experts and more traditional tech leaders — and bring together the organizations, researchers, and even companies working to advance the public interest aspects of the work. With a dedicated, action-oriented network around each project, we document what steps these leaders are taking, distill it into recommendations for them and other stakeholders, and cycle those learnings back throughout our networks for continued application and improvement.

Having this established model for organized strategy around networks is powerful in an ordinary setting to test ideas, advance strategies, and compare follow-through. It’s downright crucial when we need to rapidly organize around what’s working so we can share and scale solutions as quickly as possible when lives and livelihood are on the line.

U.S. Digital Response launched quickly by drawing on networks created through the Beeck Center and the longstanding efforts by other leaders in this field including Code for America’s 10 years of networked civic technologists in more than 80 brigades all across the country. Because our networks are organized around areas of expertise, region, government size or structure, and more, we could quickly scan across them to see what early lessons could be distilled and shared back with one another. And for networks such as these to work well together, we rely on some — often unspoken — shared principles and norms.

Put people first: In every problem to solve or issue to advance, people should be at the center and should be directly asked what they want and need and how a particular solution might impact them. Talk to people; put them first.

Scout, then scale: If you’re working on an important problem, chances are someone else is also working on it — or has already solved it. Before starting anything, look around, ask around, and understand who else is already on it. When you find them, consider joining forces or lifting up their work and moving on to something else altogether — there’s plenty else to do.

Work in the open: Only when your work can be easily found and accessed can it be useful to others. Using APIs (application programming interfaces) and sharing resources like software code as open source and information as open data allows others to find your work, adapt it for their own purposes, and improve upon it. 

Come for the work, not for the credit: Working in the public interest is about helping people. It’s about doing the work, or, if you can’t, then getting out of the way and supporting those who can. It’s not about thought leadership, getting credit, or anything other than helping people in need.

The Beeck Center’s mission of impact at scale underpins our efforts with U.S. Digital Response. Government organizations at all levels are under strain and will continue to be tested in the weeks and months ahead — and the same is true for friends and neighbors. We will need people openly sharing what is working and actively helping others to keep both our networks of family and friends and our government systems online and running.

Cori Zarek is the Director of Data + Digital at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. She is a former Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer and worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2013-2017. Follow at @corizarek.

Starting with the states of Colorado and New Jersey, this project will document lessons learned to scale throughout the digital service network.

March 4, 2020

The Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative (DSC), in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, is launching a project to pair researchers with new government digital service teams to capture early steps, decisions, and strategies to understand what they are learning as they form and to serve as actionable resources for other governments establishing digital service teams.

In recent years, governments have increasingly begun advancing service delivery with modern technology, software development, and service design principles. As these efforts take shape, government teams are pioneering new approaches and adapting from their experiences. The DSC launched in April 2019 to bring together leaders in the government digital service ecosystem to conduct action-oriented research, share successful strategies, and work together to develop solutions that we can scale throughout this network. 

For this project, the DSC is launching its first phase with two researchers who will collaborate with state offices focused on digital transformation. The researchers will work alongside government teams to understand the decisions and strategies that arise in the early days of this work. This includes the barriers and challenges faced by public servants, policy makers, external partners, and recipients; the technical processes and decisions involved; and the key indicators being used to measure success both internally and externally. Research outputs will be highlighted through policy briefs, playbooks, blog posts, and other useful products for the DSC network. 

Colorado and New Jersey have joined for this first phase of the project. The Colorado Digital Service is a new team within the Governor’s Office of Information Technology. This small team of senior engineers, designers, and product managers work alongside dedicated civil servants in state agencies to develop user-centered solutions to Colorado’s most pressing technical challenges. Founded with a mandate to improve the lives of New Jerseyans by designing and deploying more effective and efficient government services, the New Jersey Office of Innovation works in partnership with the Governor’s office and state agencies to create innovative policies and technologies that address complex public problems by working differently. 

This work will join the DSC’s existing portfolio of projects ranging from developing a playbook on streamlining the foster care licensing process in states to bringing together data ethicists to develop a model to responsibly share data between the public and private sectors for better outcomes. 

This project will be led by Cori Zarek, Director of the DSC, and supported by the Beeck Center’s team of staff, fellows and students. The DSC is actively recruiting new digital service teams set to launch in U.S. cities and states to be part of a second phase of this project for later this year.

Two researchers are joining the DSC to support this project. 

Conor Carroll is a State of New Jersey Researcher with the Digital Service Collaborative. He is also a social impact fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy where he was lead researcher and author of a report on philanthropy and democracy. Previously, Conor worked as a senior research analyst with Gartner, where he managed a budget and staffing benchmark survey. He is an AmeriCorps alum and has served in research roles at the U.S. Treasury Department, and the Joint Economic Committee. Conor received his BA cum laude from Penn State University and his MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University where he concentrated in economics and public policy.

Yeri Kim is a State of Colorado Researcher with the Digital Service Collaborative. Yeri is working with the newly announced Colorado Digital Service to analyze the team’s projects and processes to support the strategic design of similar innovation initiatives in other state and local governments. Yeri’s experience is in human-centered design research and strategy, specializing in making complex systems work for the people that use them. Her approach is informed by psychology & behavioral science, community development, and business strategy. Previously, Yeri was a Senior Design Researcher at IA Collaborative, a global design & innovation consulting firm, where she led teams to solve clients’ most complex problems such as new market entry, product & service development, customer experience design, and platform innovation. She has broad experience working in partnership with Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, and social enterprises on challenges in healthcare, finance, education, and housing & homelessness.

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Harnessing user-centered design and digital technology to improve the efficiency of licensing for foster families.

March 3, 2020

An estimated one in 17 American children will spend at least one day in foster care in their lives. Many end up separated from relatives, in group homes, or in poorly matched foster homes in part because the foster family licensing process, including for relatives, is cumbersome and often takes more than 200 days. To simplify this process, the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative (DSC), in partnership with Foster America and New America, is creating a playbook for states to make it faster and easier for foster children to be placed with people they already know. 

In most states, the process is especially problematic for kin families, as children can languish for months living with strangers or in group homes while waiting for adults who already know and love them to be approved as foster parents. Recruitment typically relies on roadside billboards and word of mouth instead of data. And the sense of urgency to safely place a child on a moment’s notice means initial placements are often not with family members or based on the child’s specific needs. 

Several states have been experimenting with creative practices that lead to tangible improvements and efficiencies in their support of foster children and families. Rhode Island, for example, significantly streamlined its process and was able to license more than 100 families over a single weekend. The DSC and its project partners are bringing together 12 states on the cutting edge of this work — starting with Indiana, Michigan, Washington, and Maryland — to create a public, actionable playbook documenting proven best practices that can be replicated and scaled by others. The playbook will document practices that create measurable improvements, such as reducing the time it takes for foster families to be vetted and matched with children, impacting the lives of thousands of foster children. 

Using practices rooted in user-centered design and digital technology, the project will improve the efficiency of licensing foster families, with a focus on making relatives available as placements for children in need, as well as how states match children in foster care with families. Through incremental and realistic changes to the foster care system, this joint effort will demonstrate the opportunity for new policy models that can improve children’s lives and will look beyond technology-first solutions to a more holistic assessment of systems, bureaucracy, and people.

This work will join the DSC’s existing portfolio of projects ranging from using human-centered design to deliver better policy outcomes, to bringing together data ethicists to develop a model to responsibly share data among the public and private sectors for better outcomes. The DSC is a project in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation that is activating the global network of public interest technologists to collaborate on solutions to improve people’s lives and scale those solutions back through the network.

Our fellows will be supported by Cori Zarek, the Director of the DSC, along with the Beeck Center’s team of staff, fellows, and students.

Emily Tavoulareas is a Beeck Center fellow who uses design and technology to make things—products, experiences, programs, policies, organizations—work better for people. From 2013-2018 she worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House to modernize the way the federal government delivers services to the public. From co-founding the first agency-level team of the U.S. Digital Service and modernizing the veterans application for healthcare, to piloting and scaling the human-centered design methodology with an intrepid team at the VA Center for Innovation, and serving as Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer at the White House, she has experienced first hand what it takes to modernize and transform large and complex organizations.

She is currently a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, teaching at Columbia University, an affiliate of Public Digital, and working as an independent advisor, helping leaders across industries effectively navigate the complex process of improving their product/service/organization. 

Katie Sullivan is a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center who works on this project with Emily Tavoulareas. She’s drawn to the Beeck Center’s innovative, multidisciplinary approach to promoting scalable and sustainable social impact. The U.S. is at a crucial moment when advances in data and technology have the potential to improve governance and livelihoods. However, these innovations may also cause harm if implemented without care and foresight. She’s excited for the opportunity to learn from the Beeck Center’s Data + Digital team while also working to amplify participation and resilience in the upcoming U.S. digital Census.

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New Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for Action-Oriented Stakeholder Recommendations

February 21, 2020

Every day, millions of Americans apply for public benefits, the critical funds they need to pay for housing, food, or transportation. But the process of completing applications and obtaining approval is complex and time consuming — it’s often paper-based and can require in-person filings with long lines. As a result, many people abandon applications or don’t bother at all and don’t get benefits they’re eligible to receive. 

New solutions leveraging data and technology have emerged in recent years to make it easier for people to apply for and enroll in these safety net benefits. To understand these existing tools as well as opportunities where new products and services can be developed, Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation is partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch an action-oriented research project to detail data and technology-enabled solutions that can close the gap to give more people better access to priority federal public benefits. 

This new project will result in recommendations for a variety of stakeholders to increase enrollment of federal safety net benefits by leveraging data, design, technology, and innovation. It is part of the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative (DSC). 

The field of technology-enabled solutions that eligible individuals can use to efficiently navigate services available to them as they pursue greater economic security is small but growing. Organizations such as Code for America and the Benefits Data Trust are conducting research and developing products that simplify the process for both the applicant and the government workers processing applications. For example, Code for America’s GetCalFresh reduced the application time for Californians to apply for nutrition assistance from 45 minutes down to eight, helping close the gap of the 2 million Californians who are eligible for these benefits but not receiving them.  

Despite these successes, it is still early in the development and application of data and technology-enabled solutions in the public benefits space. This research project will: 

  • Map the early actors in this space to understand their work 
  • Identify gaps where activity is not yet taking place
  • Determine where to prioritize further resources and action 

The project joins the portfolio of the DSC which launched in April 2019 in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation. The DSC’s mission is to cultivate the network of people working on data, design, technology, and innovation in governments, and activate them to co-create and scale solutions to help advance their work, while documenting it so others can use it as well. The DSC’s existing portfolio of projects range from developing a playbook to help states modernize their foster care licensing processes to bringing together data ethicists to develop a guide for responsibly sharing data between the public and private sectors for better social outcomes. 

This portfolio of work is led by Cori Zarek, the Director of the DSC, with support from the Beeck Center’s team of staff, fellows and students. “There’s a range of critical public benefits from healthcare to nutrition assistance to transportation support that can be improved for all residents by leveraging data and technology to improve access and enrollment,” Zarek said. “Great work is already happening out there, and by bringing ecosystem players together, we hope to scale their efforts and ultimately help more people access the services they need to thrive.” 

Two research fellows have joined the DSC to lead the public benefits project: 

Chad Smith researches the operational, technological, and ethical practices of integrating continuous client data into programs offered by social services departments and providers. He is currently the founder of YourSeat, a data platform for collecting, measuring and reporting behavior change in Family First Prevention Services Act programs. Prior to YourSeat, Chad led human-centered design engagements for Accenture’s public, healthcare, telecommunication, and financial services clients undergoing internal system modernization efforts. Chad currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area. He earned a B.A in Political Science from Hampton University and regularly volunteers at Digital Pioneers Academy. 

Sara Soka is an advocate for human-centered policy, implementation, and service design. Sara brings a background in applied qualitative research and network leadership spanning public health issues, plus substantial experience in community engagement and strategic communication. She managed Berkeley, California’s successful soda tax campaign, the first to pass in the U.S., with resident-led policymaking, locally resonant messaging, and participatory budgeting as guiding principles. As a consultant and a Vice President of Policy for a national public health nonprofit, she monitored iterations of this policy and its implementation, the related impacts, and implications for equity. Recently, she gained experience in UX research, and has consulted as a policy analyst for Code for America.

The digital transformation of government is a powerful idea. It has sparked great enthusiasm and speculation about how technology and data might revolutionize government efficiency, policy-making and service delivery. But despite significant investments and innovations, these promises have not yet delivered at scale.

To better understand the limits and potential of digital technologies in American government, the Digital Service Collaborative (DSC) at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation1The Digital Service Collaborative (DSC) is a program designed to develop research around government digital services, create tangible resources for practitioners, cultivate the community of digital service leaders in governments to share and scale efforts, and explore policy considerations including ethics and privacy. The DSC team is based out of the Beeck Center at Georgetown University, supporting public and private sector efforts to responsibly share and use data to address some of society’s most challenging issues and to support civic engagement with public institutions. See https://beeckcenter.georgetown.edu/project/digital-service-collaborative-building-capacity-for-digital-transformation-in-government/, accessed 21 October 2019. spent five months talking with people working at the frontlines of digital transformation in US cities, counties, states, and federal agencies.

A full description of background, methods and findings from this research are presented in the 37-page report: Setting the Stage for Transformation: Frontline Reflections on Technology in American Government.

Key findings and recommendations are presented here, including the following recommendations:

table of 14 recommendations

A summary of these recommendations and the research on which they are based is presented below in three sections. 

  • The first section describes how people working on the frontlines of American government experience the limits and potential of technology more generally. 
  • The second section describes the above recommendations in greater detail. 
  • The final section provides a brief description of the research methodology and context in which this should be considered. 

Understanding Transformation

18F defines digital transformation according to three characteristics of a transformed government institution: the connectedness of staff to an agency’s mission, the application of technology toward that mission, and agency commitment to continued improvement.2Pandel et al., “Best Practices in Government Digital Transformation: Preliminary Report.” Responses to this research supported that view, but also described digital transformation as more of a journey than a destination. This is best summarized in the following three arguments: 

  1. Digital transformation is an iterative and evolutionary process, in which new tools and strategies are applied and demonstrate value incrementally, opening space and interest for additional tools. No single tool or strategy ever immediately transforms an institution.
  2. Digital technologies are an instrument for improving government and not an end in themselves. The objective behind implementing any digital tool, product or associated process is and should always be providing better government and better government services to the public. 
  3. Digital technology is embedded in contemporary governance; it cannot be avoided, nor should it be fetishized. As a descriptive term, “digital government” makes as little sense as “paper government.” To effectively adapt to the new technological context in which they necessarily operate requires government institutions to acknowledge that using digital tools is the new normal. 

In keeping with these arguments, respondents viewed digital transformation as something that could and should be managed by people working in government, in order to improve government and the services it provides. In particular, respondents described multiple benefits and contributions that the smart use of technology and data could provide to (a) civic interaction and service delivery; (b) data, evidence and analytics; and (c) efficiency and resources.  Respondents also described numerous specific obstacles and barriers posed by (a) insufficient capacities or resources, (b) formal rules and institutional structures, and (c) institutional cultures and preconceptions. 

Respondents described an interaction between short term benefits of using technology, and the long-term changes to institutional practice and culture that would enable more scaled and widespread use of technology to improve outcomes. This interaction is how respondents described processes of digital transformation in government institutions. 

When describing what enables such processes, respondents described three broad institutional conditions:

  1. Explicit support for cross-functional technical expertise
  2. Deliberate professionalization of technical expertise, and 
  3. Open and engaged institutions. 

In order to facilitate these conditions, and set the stage for meaningful digital transformation in government institutions, this analysis makes fourteen recommendations to policy-makers, implementers, and external stakeholders.


Recommendations for policy makers 

  1. Lead with curiosity. There is often an esoteric quality to the types of tools and strategies referenced in this report. This makes them easy to dismiss, underestimate, or in some cases, it can inflate expectations. Leaders in government should take time to explore and understand the roles, skills and ways of working that are associated with the strategies described here, and the value that they can add to policy and service delivery. Doing so helps to maximize their value, and to signal that value across institutions, while also strengthening coherence across teams and setting realistic expectations.
  2. Initiate an explicit institutional discussion. This might take any number of forms, including an audit of existing practices, setting up a task force to review opportunities, or simply asking technical staff to begin holding brown bag lunches. The important thing is to create a space in which new ideas and approaches can be suggested and considered, with a real potential for implementation. The context of this discussion could also vary widely. A good checklist can be drawn from the “seven lenses of transformation” proposed for defining and benchmarking transformation by the 7 UK Government Digital Service.3Vickerstaff and Cunnington, “How to Set up Transformation Projects That Could Shape Our Future.”
  3. Budget creatively. The cost of technology can be inhibitive. Engage technical staff to identify ways in which implementing digital can cut costs elsewhere. What processes could be automated to free human resources? What paper processes can be digitized to eliminate printing and transporting costs?
  4. Build cross-functional teams. Identify ways to avoid responsive silos of technical expertise by integrating technical and non-technical expertise in teams and processes. Create opportunities for technical and policy experts to collaborate across project cycles, from planning to evaluation, even in projects where technology or data play a minor role. When possible, aim to establish cross-functional and co-located teams in order to strengthen learning and cross-pollination between technical and policy expertise.
  5. Demystify technology and cultivate tech-normal institutional cultures. Identify opportunities for trainings, hosting events, or inviting speakers that can communicate the nuts and bolts of relevant data and technology. Cultivate an institutional environment that values frank conversations about technology and its limits, and that does not fetishize technical expertise at the expense of other expertise. 
  6. Avoid exploitative procurement. One of the most profound ways to limit the cost of technology programs is to avoid overpaying on technology procurement. Contacting peer institutions that have made comparable investments and conducting more thorough market research can help.4Brethauer, “Announcing OASIS Discovery: Making Market Research Easier.” It may also be possible to pursue cooperative procurement,5See, for example https://www.nigp.org/home/find-procurement-resources/directories/cooperative-purchasing-programs, accessed 21 October 2019. modular contracting,6Jaquith, “Prerequisites for Modular Contracting.” or to piggyback on existing contracts with other government agencies or institutions.7See https://www.coprocure.us/about.html, accessed 21 October 2019. 
  7. Foster environments for responsible experimentation. Attention to the novel risks that accompany technology and data often focus on challenges to privacy and consent, but also involve more subtle ethical risks, such as poorly informed policy or the opportunity cost of wasted technology budgets and processes. Explicit institutional processes and attention during planning and analysis phases can help to identify and mitigate these risks, and can be integrated into several of the other recommendations presented here.8For a detailed description of a process-based approach to managing risks associated with government data, see Wilson, 2018. For a collection of applied tools, see the Responsible Research and Innovation Toolkit at  https://www.rri-tools.eu/about-rri, accessed 21 October 2019. 

Recommendations for implementers and doers

  1. Document and share digital and data-driven projects and processes. The demand for storytelling and experience sharing is widespread and consistent across the front lines of digital transformation. Conferences and events provide a much-needed forum for inspiration and “therapy” — as well as learning and education — but there remains a need for technical documentation for the types of projects that are implemented in multiple jurisdictions. Make a point of documenting technical specifications, steps taken, challenges and processes along the way. Share this. 
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel, the interface, or the database. There is a significant degree of replication in government technology. Conduct market research to determine what similar platforms and products have been created by others.9The Federal Source Code Policy supports reuse and public access to custom-developed Federal source code, which is published at https://code.gov/about/overview/introduction. Organizations like 18F and Code for America also often publish detailed documentation and descriptions of digital tools (see https://18f.gsa.gov/2016/04/06/take-our-code-18f-projects-you-can-reuse/ and https://www.codeforamerica.org/news, accessed 21 October 2019.). International resources, like the International Development Bank’s repository of off-the-shelf technology solutions may also be useful (see https://code.iadb.org/en, accessed 21 October 2019). Modify and adapt open source solutions when appropriate. Produce and share open source solutions whenever possible. 
  3. Create feedback loops between the public and government. Most digital services imply an opportunity to solicit feedback from users. Leverage this to collect input for continually improving those services. Ensure that users can see how their input is received and that they feel heard. Look for opportunities to publicly respond to feedback, building confidence and trust in government. 
  4. Several of the above recommendations for policy makers can also be relevant, especially regarding procurement, creative budgeting, demystification, and responsible experimentation. 

Recommendations for external stakeholders

  1. Fund the “boring stuff“. Grants and resources tend to flow toward what seem to be the most novel and exciting projects, like blockchain and machine learning products, which are often untested, unproven and not what government leaders will say they need most urgently. Often, the kinds of digital and data-driven innovations with the greatest potential to transform government and government services can sound a lot less exciting, and struggle to find support. Developing common data identifiers across agencies or moving data from servers in a closet into a secure cloud environment are examples of work with revolutionary potential, but for which it is difficult to secure funding. 
  2. Support everyday superheroes. Several respondents pointed out that the most important and transformative work isn’t always being done by the usual suspects on the civic technology conference circuit. Some of the most impactful support may involve doing research to discover who is already naturally advancing digital transformation in state and local government, without recognition, and what kind of support they need to scale their successes. In the words of one respondent, discussing the limits of support to CIOs, CTOs, and CDOs, “C-suite only gets you so far. You need to focus on the people in the field.”
  3. Build an ecosystem for social support. Dedicated support to specific projects is important, but much of the work to enable digital transformation involves more sharing and learning across institutions. To the degree that this is already happening, it is happening organically. Gatherings such as the annual Code for America Summit10See https://www.codeforamerica.org/events/summit, accessed 21 October 2019. provide prominent fora for digital service professionals to gather and share, as do internationally focused events and communities, like those surrounding the Open Government Partnership11See https://www.opengovpartnership.org/ accessed 21 October 2019. and the international open data community.12Christopher Wilson, “Open Data Stakeholders: Civil Society.” The movement of experienced digital service experts through the agencies and institutions they support is also seen as an important, if limited, mechanism for building community and spreading awareness. The digital service delivery community should create more opportunities and modalities for government champions to engage with and learn from their peers, both in person and online. 

About this research

This research was designed based on the conviction that the individuals doing hands-on work to bring technology into government best understand technology’s potential and limitations. These individuals do the hard work transforming government. Their work isn’t always the most exciting or shareable, i. It sometimes results in compromise and failure. But it is from this perspective that we can best understand what technology can do to improve government, and how to manage the risks and challenges along the way. 

To better understand the perspectives, the DSC team collected data and conducted interviews between November 2018 and March 2019. This included a desk review of more than 80 articles, reports, and policy briefs, semi-structured interviews with more than 70 individuals, and informal consultation and planning conversations with more than a dozen professionals and organizations. The data collected from this process was reviewed during a three-day synthesis workshop in March 2019. A detailed description of the methodology is provided in the full report: Setting the Stage for Transformation: Frontline Reflections on Technology in American Government.

A note on the research context for digital government transformation

This research builds directly on the foundational efforts of New American Foundation’s work on Public Interest Technology and government innovation,13Schank and Hudson, “Getting the Work Done : What Government Innovation Really Looks Like”; Muñoz et al., “Public Interest Technology: Closing out Year One and Looking Forward to Year Two.” by focusing specifically on the experiences of front-line civil servants and policy makers. It makes an effort to deepen that work by attending to the role of individuals at multiple levels of government and in multiple policy areas. 

In doing so, this analysis departs most research on the digital transformation of government, which adopts a global perspective and emphasizes the work of national level digital service teams.14Bracken and Greenway, “How to Achieve Sustain Gov. Digit. Transform.”; Eaves and McGuire, “2018 State of Digital Transformation.” Much of that work is also relevant to this analysis, however, and should be considered in future research transformation processes in American institutions. In particular, recent work by Ines Mergel and colleagues has suggested a conceptual model for linking the drivers, objects, processes, and outcomes of digital transformation,15Mergel, Edelmann, and Haug, “Defining Digital Transformation: Results from Expert Interviews.” and four propositions regarding the sustainability and impact of digital service teams.16Mergel, “Digital Service Teams in Government,” 10–11. A summary of the four propositions suggests that the effectiveness of digital service teams is related to their centralization of decision authority, that the duplication of practice across teams increases the likelihood of adoption elsewhere, that increased formalization of teams increases their capacity to scale and likelihood of standardization of practice, and that the acceleration of organizational change increases the likelihood of standardized and successful innovation practice. These may provide useful frameworks for designing and evaluating specific applications of technology to institutional processes in future research.