Digital Services” teams, offices or departments are becoming ubiquitous in American cities. As municipalities develop these teams, questions on what digital services teams are, what they accomplish, and how they help municipalities meet their goals continue to grow.
Defining Digital Services and Tracking Their Growth
Digital services (DS) are broadly defined as “service delivery within government
Historically, technological expertise in the public sector was once considered a rare, mostly separated asset; however, teams dedicated to digital service provision now exist at every level of government. Federal efforts, like the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and 18F, first began in response to the Healthcare.gov rollout. Since then, there has been continued growth across federal agencies, teams and projects. In the last two years, additions of the Congressional Digital Service Fellowship, the House Digital Service Team, and a growing number of statewide digital agencies have revealed an increasing trend of support and interest in such offices. Now, at the local level, municipalities are increasing the number of DS teams across the US.
The COVID-19 pandemic and other recent cultural and political shifts have also impacted DS growth. By reducing in-person contact, the pandemic accelerated awareness of digital equity disparities and the need to improve online accessibility. For many cities, adjusting to safety requirements meant revamping all or most municipal processes ranging from public meetings to permit/license processing.
Additionally, trust in the federal government and American institutions has been in decline for two decades. Although local and state governments are associated with higher trust and approval ratings by the American public, attention towards interactions with government bodies has propelled an interest in improving customer service touch points. DS teams, with their focus on design, reduction of learning costs and online accessibility, are seen as part of the solution to these challenges.
Three Emerging Practices in Building DS Teams for Municipal Service Delivery
As DS teams continue to grow across all government levels, localities can greatly benefit from their implementation and deployment. Interviews with municipal DS leaders revealed three key takeaways in creating and maintaining a successful DS team.
1. Understand the Importance of DS Team Leadership— Internally and Externally
- Build Support for Your DS Team: In many cases, DS teams work across municipal departments or initiatives. Cultivating an environment of mutual respect between leaders and their teams is critical for successful communication and achieving project goals, according to Director of Digital Services Sara Hall (City of Philadelphia, PA).
Sara Hall, Director of Digital Services for the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology:
Director Hall was appointed to Director of Digital Services in March 2022 after serving as the Office of Innovation and Technology’s (OIT) user experience practice lead and holding related positions at the city since 2017. Hall oversees the newly created Digital Services team, which combines the content, UX and digital forms teams within one unit, providing prominence for digital service work across the city. They closely collaborate with the Software Engineering team to build resident-facing applications, grow and support the city’s website, and create secure digital forms focusing on providing consistent, high-quality digital experiences across public-facing platforms to City of Philadelphia residents.
- Understand the Importance of Program Champions and Keep Them Informed: For most offices, creating and implementing a DS team requires support from municipal elected and administrative officials. Of the interviewed DS leaders, all three emphasized that practicing consistent communication and sharing about both accomplishments and challenges can allow leaders to foster transparency, problem-solve and share successes with the community.
Cyd Harrell, Chief Digital Services Officer for the City of San Francisco:
Chief Officer Harrell was appointed to her new position in the city of San Francisco in April 2022, succeeding the previous chief officer, Carrie Bishop. Harrell has leadership experience within the public interest technology field, including groups like 18F, Code for America and the Center for Civic Design. Since its creation in 2017, the San Francisco DS team launched the city’s website. The updated website is “a one-stop shop website that serves the entire City with the highest accessibility standards.” The team also built over 250 COVID information pages and a vaccine finder for residents.
2. Establish an Organizational Culture
- Show Rather Than Tell: When municipal staff and leaders are new to DS, direct action can demonstrate how DS work benefits others. Executing a smaller-scale digital project, but one that “everyone in the community would care about,” is one way to begin, according to Chief Digital Officer Dana Berchman (City of Gilbert, AZ). For example, her office helped locally roll out the change to the national suicide prevention emergency call line—a project of significant public relevance that required collaboration with Gilbert’s local police department and other community partners. Together, they determined how to route calls and started a campaign to inform the community of the change. For additional inspiration for small-scale projects, Berchman suggests starting with trash resources, including information on pickup and schedules.
Dana Berchman, Chief Digital Officer for the City of Gilbert’s Office of Digital Government:
Chief Officer Dana Berchman returned home to Gilbert, AZ after beginning a career in marketing, journalism and television to assume a digital-related role within the city. Under her leadership, Gilbert’s Office of Digital Government has won national awards for civic engagement, storytelling, digital innovation and resident satisfaction. These awards were given for the team’s development of a robust social media strategy, an open data hub and the “Government Gone Digital” podcast, where staff members share about their approach to digital engagement practices. In sharing her approach to government DS work, Berchman explains that “it doesn’t have to be expensive,” emphasizing that even with fewer resources, completing a few DS-related projects can help newer DS teams build their reputations both inside and outside the municipal workforce.
- Respect Others’ Work and Help Them Accomplish their Goals: All interviewees stressed DS teams should highlight and uplift others’ work, not stepping in to assume direct authority over a project. To promote a positive work environment, Berchman expressed that DS team leads should show staff that “[you’re] here to make them look good.”
- Refrain from Treating the Team as a Separate Entity: To avoid creating bubbles, Chief Officer Harrell (City of San Francisco, CA) expressed, “The team shouldn’t receive any special treatment—no separate office spaces.” This may further cultivate an open, respectful workplace environment conducive to partnership building.
3. Build Capacity (However You Can)
- Source to meet demand: In the words of Chief Officer Harrell, “a city of 40,000 people essentially needs to provide the same things as a city of 400,000.” However, all digital service teams do not have the same capacity to respond to digital service demands. Harrell recommends municipalities may need to outsource, perhaps with local design firms, to meet demands.
- Bring on employees with varied skillsets: Beyond outsourcing for help, recognize that all skills are valuable as teams will likely be small in the startup phase. As Berchman suggests, “If you are a one-person band, look for someone super well-rounded. Don’t just look for a marketer or writer; look for someone who has a variety of skills.”
- Build diversity as early as possible: As the tech field continues to face issues in retaining diversity in staffing, DS team leaders may find cultivating an environment and team that is diverse and representative can be a challenge. DS team leaders can be proactive in addressing this challenge by prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in staff recruitment and retention.
- Teach tech skills to others: Connect with Human Resources (HR) offices or host office hours to teach tech-related skills to other employees. This can help multiply DS capabilities within existing staff and departments. For example, the City of Philadelphia has created an OIT apprenticeship program with those aims in mind, where municipal employees are paid to attend a training camp and work within either the city’s software engineering or user experience department for two years. The goal of the program is to allow apprentices to change careers, build their portfolios, and diversify city teams.
The Future of Municipal DS Teams
For many municipalities, resourcing and staffing full DS teams or even hiring a handful of new employees might not be realistic or feasible. In addition to the listed best practices of being creative with roles and positions, more work can be done to give municipalities of all sizes technical assistance to design a DS team that works for their needs. Opportunities that help support the preparation and resources for new employees could benefit municipalities interested in making DS a priority.
Despite these challenges, one thing is clear: DS teams are here to stay at all levels of government. Their impacts are the result of dedicated public servants and innovative leaders who are grounded by the principles of what government service provision can and should look like. There will be more lessons to learn as these teams continue to grow and expand.