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

I’m Joining the U.S. Digital Service

I have never been particularly interested in Government, Civic Tech and Politics with the exception of reading the Sunday NY Times, watching Meet the Press occasionally and being somewhat interested in the Open Data movement.

A year ago I had a conversation with Susannah Fox about AI, Healthcare and Aneesh Chopra’s book “The Innovative State“. I was inspired and began digging deeper into the intersection of Government and Technology. I learned about 18F, Cloud.gov and played around with datasets from data.gov. I watched hearings on the OPEN Data Act and subscribed to newsletters from Think Tanks like the Center for Data Innovation.

As it turns out, there’s an incredible amount of innovation and goodness happening in Government today from the use of open source to data transparency to progressive tech policy.

Susannah connected me with the US Digital Service, a group of Engineers, Designers, Product Managers and Digital Policy Experts that work across the Departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, and the Small Business Administration to improve websites, access to datasets, user experiences and more. It sounded awesome and I decided to give it a go.

An election, a hiring freeze, a few background checks and many interviews later, I was accepted into the program. My wife, kids and I are relocating from Denver, CO to Washington, D.C. for a year long “tour of duty”.

Learn more about the US Digital Service and how you can join!

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Keep Reading:

How Product Managers Can Mess Around With Open Datasets

Most Cities, States and Federal Agencies are working on some type of Open Data initiatives. The most common is an “Open Data Portal” that makes it easy to grab and use datasets:

https://data.cincinnati-oh.gov/
https://data.colorado.gov/
https://data.commerce.gov/
https://www.data.gov/

Some cities are using Open Data to publish performance metrics like the Seattle Police Department or Louisville’s LouieStat.

Civic Leaders working on these initiatives cite promoting transparency in Government, improving performance and providing data for innovation as reasons why Open Data is so important.

As a Product Manager, it’s helpful to be familiar with what’s out there and how you can play around with these datasets to better understand how your product may benefit.

Before you dive into querying APIs, checkout a few of these projects to see the end result of building something with Open Data.

USAFacts
CollegeScorecard
500 Cities Project
Data.gov

Ok, now let’s dig into some datasets you can play with.

Socrata’s Open Data Network
Socrata hosts over one hundred different data catalogs for governments, non-profits, and NGOs around the world. Checkout their Open Data Network where you can search for datasets.

For example, here’s a page about San Bernardino County Employment. Click “View API” to end up on a page giving you data and an API call you can paste into your browser or Postman.

Namara
Namara has organized a bunch of public datasets into a beautiful UI. Create a free account, sign in, create a new project then click Open Data in the left column to search and add datasets to your project. You can view the table data and manipulate it or call the data using their API.

https://api.namara.io/v0/data_sets/{DATA_SET_ID}/data/{VERSION_ID}?api_key={YOUR_API_KEY}

In your project settings, you can generate an API key. Then, in each dataset you can click “API Info” and get the data_set_id and version_id.

ProPublica
You can use ProPublica to request data about Congress such as a list of Recent Bills and Member Voting records.

https://propublica.github.io/congress-api-docs/#congress-api-documentation

You’ll need to request an API key by emailing apihelp@propublica.org then pass that in the X-API-KEY header.

For example, to query Rep. Jared Polis’s voting record:
https://api.propublica.org/congress/v1/members/P000598/votes.json

Open Data and the big IaaS Platforms

Another approach is to checkout Public Datasets baked into AWS, Google Cloud Platform and IBM Bluemix.

This is a great example of using Google BigQuery on NYC Public Datasets.

AWS hosts a bunch of Open Data in S3 buckets.

IBM, as part of the NOAA Big Data Project, has built an easy way to download tons of data.

Additional Reading

A few hashags to search around on are #govtech, #opendata, #opengovdataand #opengov. Follow people like @Josh_A_New, @JoshData, @DataInnovation, and the @SunFoundation.

Here are a few links related to Open Data policy and relevant news.

Some history on U.S. Federal Open Data Policy

DATA Act passed in 2014, America’s first open data law. It directs the federal government to transform all spending information into open data.

Conversation on the future of Open Data as Administrations change and the Preserving Government Data Act of 2017

The OPEN Government Data Act “directs all federal agencies to publish their information as machine-readable data, using searchable, open formats and requires every agency to maintain a centralized Enterprise Data Inventory that lists all data sets, and also mandates a centralized inventory for the whole government (data.gov)”.

Open Data 500 US is an interesting survey results showing what kinds of companies use which agencies’ data.