Launching Your State Digital Service

A Digital Service team with a one or two year “digital tour of duty” model  is a way for the top engineers, designers and product managers in your city or state to work full-time on the civic tech problems that make a difference for your citizens.

Most of the best tech talent in your State is not working for the Government.  They have probably never considered a career in public service or have no idea where to plugin.  A Digital Service creates that pathway.

The United States Digital Service

The U.S. Digital Service was founded in 2014.  Technologists from around the country move to Washington, D.C. for a one or two year term.  Most of the 180 or so USDSers are assigned to an agency like HHS, DHS, DoD or the VA.  Some work on longer-term projects at a single agency and others will work on many varying projects across multiple agencies.  The USDS is paid for out of a part of the OMB budget called ITOR.  Because the USDS has found technology solutions that save millions of dollars and executed on projects yielding very positive results for the American people, their funding and work continues.

Setting up your State Digital Service

In a State Digital Service model, the keys are funding and air cover.  It needs support from the top, either from the Governor or Mayor.  A big decision that needs to be made is where the Digital Service lives in your State’s Government structure.  Often, the initial thinking is for the Digital Service to report into the Office of Information Technology (OIT) because “it’s a technology thing”.  If OIT works across agencies and has great leadership, this could work well.  If not, your Digital Service could simply be viewed as staff augmentation and likely will fail.

You’ll need a charter, funding and the first cohort of awesome designers, engineers and product managers from your State ready to serve.  If the right structure is put in place, the talent in your region will seek out opportunities to be involved.

Once you’re setup and have your inaugural team on board, now the real work begins.  Picking the right projects is key.

The Work

In my year with the U.S. Digital Service I have seen a few scenarios where our USDS team was uniquely positioned to make a big impact.

Cross-team Projects

At CMS, the Blue Button 2.0 project required many different teams align on a shared product vision.  As anyone that has worked in a large enterprise knows, this is very complicated and hard to pull off in the best of circumstances.  Because the USDS had the air cover from CMS leadership, we were able to recommend and execute on a path forward that brought together several teams across divisions within CMS and shipped Blue Button 2.0 within a few months.

Procurement

The USDS brings great engineers to the table alongside an agency team to assist with procurement process and technology decisions.  The USDS helped design an Agile BPA and various processes to evaluate vendor proposals that included submitting code samples to Github and more.  This is such an important part of the success of USDS, the team even has a nickname, the Procuremenati!

Design Sprints

A design sprint is a process in which a small, cross-discipline team goes really deep on a problem for a short amount of time, typically 2-4 weeks (Ex: Defense Digital Service design sprint).  The nimble structure of a Digital Service team uniquely positions it for this type of work whereas normal agency constraints may hinder a successful design sprint.

Is your State ready?

To drive innovation, find new sources of talent and generally improve the quality of the software they are building for their citizens, State and Local Governments leverage many types of structures such as University Partnerships, Bloomberg I-Team Grants, Code for America and 18F, and more.  In my home state of Colorado for example, there’s a thriving open data challenge called Go Code Colorado, a Code for Denver brigade, over 1,300 datasets in the Open Colorado data portal and learnings from work with Code for America and more.  This is the type of CivicTech energy you want as you ready for your State’s Digital Service.  It shows a strong demand to engage in Government from your local tech community.

Each team begins differently.  The US Digital Service was born out of the technical problems during the launch of healthcare.gov and is four years old now.  The Canadian Digital Service launched less than a year ago and has added GovTech leaders like Aaron Snow to the team.  The UK Digital Service began in 2010 out of a “Digital by Default” mandate and has paved the way for other Digital Service teams.

Summary

The Digital Service magic happens when you combine the private sector design, engineering, and product management talent with Government talent that has the policy knowledge, deep subject matter expertise and understands how to navigate bureaucracy.

More Reading…

Digital Service Teams

Working alongside Digital Service Teams

Playbooks and Reports

Articles

CivicTech in Colorado

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