This is the last in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce. 
Read the previous blogs: Encouraging the Next Generation of Digital Service Professionals to Work in Government and Why Governments Should Prioritize UX for Everyone

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

At the Beeck Center, our work in Public Interest Technology Field Building is focused on establishing greater credibility and capacity for those working to deliver services to the public.

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
Read the Report

As a part of my research surrounding emerging professionals in the government digital service delivery field, I interviewed leaders within the field to learn more about the skills, experiences, programs, and personality traits relevant to the field. The more I interview people who work in the field of government digital service, the clearer it becomes that our federal government needs workers with different experiences to be involved in decision-making processes. Although no team is complete without those who’ve worked in government before, our perceptions should be shifting towards a skillset and mindset more representative of younger workers. Increasing the talent pool with a more diverse set of voices who bring a unique set of skills and identity makeups should be a main focus of all government teams. However, just because a team actively makes space for a diverse group of individuals, it doesn’t always mean that space is inclusive. Actively making decisions to improve existing staffing systems and how jobs are traditionally evaluated is an important note to make. Considering this, I asked 10 government digital service workers what they believed to be the most important skills for emerging professionals within their field. Many of their responses echoed one another and centered on these themes.

1. Focus on mission-driven work 

“Government is really behind. Don’t judge employees within the government who are working to fix these problems. Don’t come in with a savior complex.” – Former USDS Director 

A passion for mission-driven work empowers emerging professionals as a common core value. They are dedicated to serving others and are willing to educate themselves on topics that are important parts of users’ lives. Real impact is a main priority for the products and services they create. Within local, state, or federal government alike, they realize the magnitude of their work’s ability to drive change. 

2. Bureaucracy hacking and preparing for slow wins 

“Doing big things in government takes a long time. Don’t be that afraid of multiple year projects.” – Chief Technology Officer  

Unlike the private sector, rapid change has an increased risk when implemented in the public sector, so a willingness to adapt and understand procedural nuances is an important part of a government digital service. Ideas, creation, and implementation may take much longer to enact, requiring patience and ability to reiterate innovations consistent with emerging technologies.

3. Explaining technology to various users

“Don’t be afraid to step outside of the box – take an effort to learn other things in your role.” – Former USDS Director 

It is important to understand how technologies work without actually implementing them yourself. A broad understanding of the way technologies serve people and what they are capable of is key to serving on digital service teams. Members of a digital service team all have varying backgrounds that brought them to their roles; it is important to maintain an interdisciplinary approach when problem solving and working together as a team.

4. Advocating for underrepresented issues

“One thing that is challenging for me is far more difficult for someone else and for them to be taken seriously. We need to make more space for those people.” – Former 18F Consultant 

There are many instances when certain groups are left out of the equation whether intentional or not. It should be every level of the government’s duty to shine a light on these inequalities and how a historically underrepresented group may be affected. This includes providing ample research and support to address these issues, and requires moving past pushback. Serving as a sounding board for those who may traditionally be marginalized is also necessary. 

5. A surplus of empathy

“I had a long standing understanding of the importance of trust in relationships and empathy towards those who are in hard situations. Government is an everyday hard situation.” – Former 18F Consultant 

Government is often stereotyped as monolithic in process, leaving little room for understanding and humanistic qualities, but this is most certainly not the case. Most public service employees must possess high levels of empathy, navigating different experiences and circumstances by understanding others’ wants, needs, and pain points. Their jobs are to represent and understand those who they are serving. Without a semblance of awareness of the needs of residents, it is difficult to make accurate decisions that represent the population. An emphasis on human-centered design thinking allows professionals to understand, create, and modify systems to better serve those they are affecting. This allows for great amounts of quantitative and qualitative research in order to understand the environment. 

6. Development of “power skills”

“A job in this field is 90% about building trust and relationships.” – Former USDS Consultant 

In one of my interviews, a leader in the field described often overlooked skills, traditionally labeled as “soft skills,” or more ideally, “power skills,” as some of the most important to government success. Power skills are commonly defined as technical and non-technical, serving as a hybrid for effective problem solving and communication. There are seven power skills: (1) problem solving, (2) decision making, (3) judgment, (4) communication, (5) self management, (6) collaboration, and (7) value clarification. Each skill builds off of the other serving as an ideal ecosystem of productivity. Whether as a combination of multiple or expertise in one, these skills help produce successful outcomes in government digital service teams and other innovative teams within government. 

 

Although there are currently limited entry-level positions available in the field, it is important to know that there is an acknowledgement of the relevance of emerging professionals in the field. It is also important to recognize the importance of transparency and accessibility of resources in order to establish a workforce prepared to use these skills. Expecting all digital service professionals to have access to developing these resources is not a fair way to judge success considering the current ecosystem. Providing more resources for emerging professionals is a key objective in our work at the Beeck Center. 

While this list is intended to provide a macro view of what may be valued of government digital service professionals, it is important to celebrate differences in approaches, experiences, and exposure to obtaining these skills. Providing clearer, more accessible pathways for emerging professionals is just the beginning. 

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com.

This is the second in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce.
Read the first blog: Encouraging the Next Generation of Digital Service Professionals to Work in Government and the final: Skills Needed for Government Digital Service Professionals

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

Before starting graduate school, I thought I knew little about user experience (UX) and what it meant, but I soon realized that it actually encompassed what I’d already been doing since I began my post-secondary education. I studied psychology and communication at the University of Pittsburgh before coming to Georgetown to pursue a career at the intersection of social impact, design, and research. Working with nonprofits and organizations such as the Beeck Center, I realized the value user experience brings to serving all people for whom government was intended, not just those government thinks they are positively affecting. What I really appreciated about the premise of UX, was the inherent effect of serving the public by creating new or modified solutions to existing, systemic problems.

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
Read the Report

Those with lived experience know best what can help them and how they would like to receive support. Although this concept of UX research is still relatively new in government, it is becoming the norm as more governments focus on the best way to serve the public. At the core of UX is ensuring that users find value in what you are providing

In any public sector organization, UX methods are imperative to successfully create, deliver, implement, and improve systems. It is easy to rely on third-party vendors that offer easily accessible service delivery, tailored to their specific team and there is nothing wrong with that. But a basic understanding of human-centered design within the public sector organization can help create efficient, innovative, and cost-effective solutions in-house, and ensure that any services provided by vendors align with the same characteristics. For example, the New Jersey Office of Innovation and Colorado Digital Service have both created dedicated teams that are able to cost-effectively deliver services, such as a streamlined unemployment website and COVID-19 Information Hub through human-centered design (HCD) influenced procurement processes. Making these efforts standardized and easily accessible is an imperative towards better serving all people.   

In fact, it’s helpful for any government employee to receive HCD training so they can ensure their work truly values the ideas of others alongside their own. What becomes difficult is sourcing and providing a healthy space for UX professionals in government teams and the needed bandwidth for establishing this government wide initiatives similar to Usability.gov’s stance on a user-centered approach. Alongside those with more technical skills, the voices of those historically considered to possess “soft skills” should be seen as compliments rather than opposites. Without the ability to analyze and deconstruct complex systems, language, and products, our government remains at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering services. 

honeycomb graphic of 7 basic traits of user experience
Factors that Influence UX. At the core of UX is ensuring that users find value in what you are providing to them. Credit: Usability.gov

In order to better understand the breadth of problems UX research and design can solve, the table below describes potentially effective examples of UX within government. These, along with other methods, can be taught through various platforms such as online training, bootcamps, and educational YouTube videos in order to better develop an iterative process of service delivery through internal teams. Bloomberg Philanthropies funds innovation teams (i-teams) that encourage  city leaders to use a design and innovation lens to tackle big problems and deliver better results.

Each method can be used in almost any stage of the digital service lifecycle, although the Nielsen Norman Group suggests specific guidelines in their UX research cheat sheet. Usability.gov suggests in order for there to be a meaningful and valuable user experience, information must be useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, and credible.


Effective Examples of UX in Government
MethodDescriptionWhat This May Look Like in Government
Card SortingA technique that asks users to group content and functionalities into open or closed categories giving input on content hierarchy, organization and flow.Asking users of the FAFSA website to describe key elements of the digital service, then categorize into schemas.
Needs Assessment
A systematic process for determining and addressing needs or "gaps" between current conditions and desired conditions or "wants".
Asking users internally + externally of a service, such as Veterans Pension Program, what needs to happen in order to make the interaction successful.
Empathy Mapping

A collaborative visualization used to articulate what is already known about the user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to create a shared understanding of user needs that aids in the decision making process.Learning more about what the users are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing while filling out their 2020 Census questionnaire online.
Persona Creation for Journey Mapping

A relatable snapshot of the target audience that highlights demographics, behaviors, needs and motivations through the creation of a fictional character. Then, a diagram that explores the steps taken by the user(s) as they engage with the service is created.What the average user experiences while accessing a SSA-16 form while applying for disability and what steps they experience throughout the process.
Rapid Prototyping

An iterative approach to the development of the services involving quickly creating mock-ups of a system before it is built in production.In line with Agile Product Management, New Jersey Office of Innovation’s creation of the New Jersey Career Network, an online career coaching tool to help people experiencing long-term unemployment plan and manage their job search.

To aid in this process, the Beeck Center’s work on Public Interest Technology Field Building is focused on ways to build credibility and capacity for the field of government digital services. Within the umbrella of digital services, roles such as UX researchers and designers are slowly becoming more common in government innovation teams. Through our research understanding the government digital service field and what workers in this field need, we want to help strengthen those existing roles and establish more pathways for promotion and career support, as well as help other teams recognize the value of these skills and create new roles. We are partnering with and building on the work that people in the civic tech and digital government community have been leading for years, including organizations like the AGL Association which is providing support for the community of government professionals working in tech and digital service roles. 

Becoming more informed about what residents experience when using different government platforms will not only improve the quality of the platforms and the work of the employee teams, but the reputation of the government as committed to serving people. It ultimately leads to greater trust in government when the systems work well and services are seamlessly delivered.

Often, collective memory will reinforce the narrative that the government is just “doing the best they can” with the resources they have, but we should be asking more of our government, while also expressing patience, to create better services when they affect such a large population. The foundations of UX make this possible. By employing empathy and methodological research we are able to expect thoughtful solutions to these complex problems that have the potential to change our lives. 

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com

This is the first in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce. 
Read parts two and three: Why Governments Should Prioritize UX for Everyone and Skills Needed for Government Digital Service Professionals

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

It should be startling that less than 5% of federal government employees are between the ages of 22-29. Not only are young professionals willing to adapt and learn potentially more readily than those fixed in a system, but they may also be more capable of helping governments overcome technological problems by proactively using data and technology to better carry out their missions in this digital age. 

Ironically, some of the most knowledgeable people in the areas of technology and digital services are those Generation Z and Millennials who grew up with technology and are newer to entering the workforce — those same 22-29-year-olds barely represented in state, local, or federal government. They are the “digital natives” who can quickly adapt and learn new technological skills. They already possess the foundation that many in government may actively be working toward or relying on others to support. Because this talent pool is eager to jump into public service roles, technology and innovation leaders should focus more efforts on the recruitment and career development of this cohort of emerging professionals. Digital natives are a valuable asset to any organization and need career pathways towards government digital service. 

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
Read the Report

In March 2020, a group of student Mozilla Builders launched Impactful, an online platform for technologists to develop their careers in social good by connecting them with socially-impactful opportunities and with other impact-driven technologists. Recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, community platforms such as Remote Students serve as a place where students and recent grads can share opportunities, events, resources, and help each other achieve their career dreams within the tech field.

Those of us coming out of current university programs are learning cutting-edge skills in human-centered design, focusing on how to put people at the center of systems and processes. These skills mean newer, digital native workers are more oriented towards public service, but there are still not as many opportunities available as there are in the private sector. Existing government teams that work in these modern ways, such as the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, Veterans Experience Office, New Jersey Office of Innovation, and San Jose Civic Innovation team are still in early days themselves and most have not yet been able to fully fill in this early part of the career pipeline. 

This isn’t to say that those already in the field aren’t trying to create more opportunities for emerging professionals. It is important to recognize the many barriers that existed for the inception of digital service teams as they exist now. But as those teams mature, agency leaders must focus more effort on the career development of this junior part of the pipeline.

Technologists, data scientists, and designers are changing the way government approaches carrying out its mission, and those individuals are also acknowledging the importance of creating entry points to civic tech-related jobs for recent graduates. But government leaders need to provide incentives and pathways obtainable for those seeking digital service in the public sector. 

This requires supporting the current ecosystem of professionals in order to allow them space to mentor those entering the field. Coding it Forward launched in 2017 to establish summer fellowships for current students in the federal government and those students are matched with mentors working in the public interest technology field. It’s a great model, but is limited in scope and duration. Roles in places like USDS, 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship allow mid- and senior-level professionals to focus on following created pathways through these organizations. But what is missing from the equation are pathways for people looking to gain experience in the more interdisciplinary field of public sector technology as junior- or entry-level professionals. Using the framework from research conducted by fellow students last summer, and through the work of the Upskilling the Government Technology Workforce project I’ve been leading at the Beeck Center, we are supporting public sector and public interest teams to prepare to bring in a younger generation digital service skills to actively challenge systems that require modern solutions. 

The Beeck Center is tapping into the network of digital service professionals through user research in order to better understand what makes current digital service individuals successful and what they are looking for in those new to the field. 

This year, I have been working to enable change for new talent by researching, listening, and creating useful resources for those relatively new to the field of government digital service delivery. As I head out into the workforce myself, I hope to challenge these existing systems that make it difficult for someone eager to use technology for good.

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com.

Friday, October 30th | By Jenn Noinaj

There’s a collective sense of purpose and responsibility in the public interest technology field that I’ve never experienced in any other job. The public service sector is about delivering better outcomes to the public, such as improving how individuals might receive their benefits or access services that they need, and public interest technology helps do just that. The field uses design, data, and technology to help achieve those outcomes, and ultimately serve the public good.

Since this is a growing space, it’s important for us to be intentional and design ways we can positively impact this growth. Designers, product managers, and engineers come into public interest tech for the mission. People are passionate about the work. Yet, there are still opportunities for us to improve: increasing diversity numbers, championing a more inclusive culture, forging career paths for professionals with various levels of experience, and fostering knowledge-sharing between communities, to name a few.

Building upon the great work that’s already been done, including by leaders at New America and the Ford Foundation, I’m excited to join the Beeck Center as a fellow this year to find and create solutions that will help contribute to the growth of individuals, teams, and communities in the public interest tech sphere. Our team aims to deliver on outcomes that are intersectional, equitable, and rooted in context for everyone to be successful, making sure we’re inclusive and supportive of diverse talent. This field is vast, and understanding the ecosystem, the people, organizations, and structures that make up this space, will help us ensure that our work is sustainable.

headshot of Jenn Noinaj
Beeck Center Fellow Jenn Noinaj

Prior to the Beeck Center, I was at the United States Digital Service (USDS) where I worked on transforming digital services across government by building capacity in design and technology and championing a user-centric culture. I supported multiple hiring actions at various agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, partnering with human resource specialists to recruit and hire diverse candidates. My team worked on revamping job announcements and position descriptions to attract people from non-traditional backgrounds and established a new process to improve federal hiring practices, ensuring a fair and equitable process for applicants. I also helped shape USDS’ hiring practices for designers, participating in recruiting, updating our competencies to align with the latest hiring needs, and conducting resume and portfolio reviews and interviews. I’m excited to bring these experiences and my background in human-centered design to carry the Beeck Center’s Public Interest Technology Workforce project forward.

We’ll be kicking off a stream of research to delve further into the field and identify findings and opportunities for us to tackle. We’re partnering with the United States of Technologists and the Tech Talent Project to produce an onboarding guide to serve as a starting point that can be customized by teams as needed. We’re looking at ways of building up a professional association to facilitate knowledge-sharing, community building, and training for folks interested in this field. I’m also excited to help out on other projects at the Beeck Center, and am currently putting together a guide on Discovery Sprints, a method to quickly understand a problem space and identify actionable next steps. These projects will build upon all of the existing resources that the Beeck Center already has published, such as how to get started in the public interest tech field and recommendations for digital transformation in government.

How You Can Help Us Now

Our project is looking at ways we can support those who work in this field, ensuring the workforce has the skills, tools, and resources they need to deliver on outcomes to the public. In order for us to identify how to institutionalize career support resources like professional development opportunities, mentorship models, and training programs we need to understand how best to meet the needs of those currently doing the work. I’m working with the Beeck Center’s Vandhana Ravi to conduct a Public Interest Technology Workforce Survey aimed at capturing the experiences, backgrounds, and demographics of the individuals in the field. We’re hoping to hear from anyone who identifies as a public interest technologist (researchers, designers, engineers, product managers, contractors, volunteers, students, etc.) to make sure we are considering the broadest perspectives and experiences. Based on the results, our plan is to publish a demographics report with the trends and opportunities from the survey, as well as follow up with individuals to have more in-depth conversations.

If you’re a part of the Public Interest Technology field, please consider taking the survey and helping us share it far and wide with your colleagues. The survey will close at 11:59PM EST on November 30th and we will look forward to sharing the findings with you so we can all work to improve a more inclusive field.

Jenn Noinaj is a Beeck Center Fellow leading our Public Interest Technology Workforce portfolio. You can follow her on Twitter and find her on LinkedIn.

The Beeck Center is conducting a U.S. Public Interest Technology Workforce Survey to help us understand how best to support the individuals who make up this growing field. We want to ensure that we’re considering the perspectives and experiences of the people who are doing this work. To do this right, we hope to document and learn from those who currently make up the field and have forged some of the career development models and resources that exist today. Based on the results, our plan is to publish a demographics report of the trends and opportunities from the survey, as well as follow up with individuals to have more in-depth conversations. This will help us identify how to institutionalize career support resources like professional development opportunities, mentorship models, and training curriculum that are specifically designed for public interest technology professionals.

We define public interest technology in the broadest sense of the phrase: studying, applying and/or leveraging data, design, technology, and innovation in service of the public interest. We recognize that this work has taken place for many years and consider similar terminology such as civic technology or digital government to fit within this field as well. Anyone who identifies as working in this field is encouraged to participate in this survey, including practitioners, students, volunteers, and researchers.

To ensure that your experience is accounted for in this work, we hope you will please fill out the survey and share with any others who we should also hear from. The questions ask about individual and organizational demographic information and details about your work experience. It should take about 10 minutes to complete and participation in this survey is completely voluntary. Your responses will remain confidential, anonymous, and all results will be compiled only in the aggregate.

Once you’ve completed the survey, we would appreciate it if you would please share it with your networks and those who have inspired your career in public interest technology to ensure that we are learning from their unique experiences as well. This survey will close at 11:59PM EST on Dec.4, 2020.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us at beeckcenter@georgetown.edu.

 

FAQ

How does the Beeck Center define Public Interest Technology?

The Beeck Center defines public interest technology in the broadest sense of the term, i.e. studying, applying and/or leveraging data, design, technology, and innovation in service of the public interest. We acknowledge that this work has been occurring for multiple decades now under many different banners: Civic Technology, Digital Government, and now Public Interest Technology. As the opportunities and bounds of this field continue to be defined, we believe that it is important to bring in as many people to the conversation as possible. We know that this work cannot and will not be defined by a single voice. Thus, we include individuals across a wide range of experiences and skill-sets into our understanding of the field.

As New America’s Public Interest Technology University Network defines it, the field “can—and should—include people who may not identify as technologists but are at the forefront of equalizing access to technology and promoting inclusive tech policy, such as those working in the ecosystems of access, open source and creative commons, digital literacy, inclusive design, movement and activist tech, community tech, and digital privacy and security.”

Can students be a part of this survey?

Absolutely. We believe students are at the forefront of this work and that their experiences and identities must be accounted for as we continue to build the field.

Are volunteers a part of this survey?

Yes. Since the Beeck Center is dedicated to comprehensively supporting all individuals who make up the public interest technology field, we encourage responses from anyone with experience in this field including volunteers and other professionals alike.

I don’t work in the U.S. Public Interest Technology field. Should I still fill out this form?

We are only considering responses from those who identify as part of the U.S. Public Interest Technology field. However, we encourage you to share this form with others you may know working in the field for them to voice their experiences.

How is my personal information going to be used and stored?

If you choose to share your personal information with us, we may request you to provide us with your name, email address, job title, employer, details about your professional background and skills, and additional demographic information. Your survey responses will be kept confidential and anonymous. The data will be stored securely and we will actively protect your information; however we will use this information to share aggregate statistics on who represents the field today and in what capacities. Additionally, if you opt -in, we may use this information to contact you as part of our efforts to understand how to create a more inclusive work environment for the public interest technology field. To ensure consensual and ethical data use, we adhere to the data privacy policy and principles of Georgetown University.

Can I get access to the raw data?

If you or your organization is interested in accessing an anonymized version of this data, please send us an email at beeckcenter@georgetown.edu.