Digital Services: A Cultural Revolution? Not yet.

Through all the slick marketing and mindful communications from digital service around the world, I do believe they have been a positive force in public service. From Toronto to Tallinn, they have demonstrated the ability to implement new and cost-saving ways to introduce digital methodologies, services and tools to the public. In some cases, while delivering these services they have also served as examples of how to lead by example in government by being transparent about one’s own culture and operations. Ontario Digital is the best example of this.

There is no common mold for digital service teams. As much as they try to affect their local environment, they are just as much products of their own local culture. From the brash British GDS, to the Canada-nice Ontario Digital service, each digital service is influenced by the culture from which it has grown and is trying to impact.

Effectiveness is a tricky metric to gauge these digital services by. Each service has different goals and objectives, and some services succeed in areas others partly because of the local conditions in which they operate. Ultimately, I believe that we are on a generation-long journey in government to adapt with the digital age. These teams, many of whom are only a year or two old, are making quick impacts for sure, but there are deeper issues at play that governments must change to be effective.

Most current digital service teams are focused on shipping product, utilizing digital talent and injecting digital-age practices into government. However, the issues in transitioning government for the digital age are much greater than turning around troubled programs, finding efficiencies and culture change. More deeply, governments around the world face an education, procurement and personnel gap.

While fixing troubled programs and delivering shiny new product has enabled digital services to gain a beachhead, I would submit that digital service teams re-double their efforts on the education front. By education, I mean that digital services would perhaps have even more of an impact if they refocus their effort on educating the consumer (a.k.a. procurement offices and program managers) to be savvier buyers.

For better or for worse, in the United States and elsewhere, much of the talent and providers of government services resides in the private sector. Vendor behavior and offerings won’t change until educated consumers within the government ask for specific digital practices and services. In the United States, the TechFAR Playbook was a step in the right direction in helping government managers and contracting officers begin asking the right questions and making appropriate demands of industry. In response, I have seen vendors change their hiring, staff training and organization to acquire the talent and train the skills demanded by government. For better or for worse in the United States, reliance on the private sector is what our elected leaders want.

What I am suggesting going forward for digital service teams is the following, mindful that local conditions and circumstance may not be applicable to all:

  1. Open the digital service community: Establish forums of collaboration to share practices and inform budding services across geographies. Much of this is done through bi-lateral relationships and some communication online, but the community would be well-served by sharing and documenting lessons learned and practices with one another. Everyone has been through growing pains, why not share those warts and pain points for the benefits of others?
  2. Educate, educate, educate: Besides talent acquisition, digital service teams should make a play in the government training space as they evolve from emergency program resuscitation squads to organizational change makers. Digital services are working hard to make government workers long for the digital sea, but are they really teaching government employees to fish (i.e. how these employees can be better digital-age workers themselves)? Whether in procurement or product management, our personnel, contracting and operations would be much better off with a more digitally-minded and attune workforce.
  3. The Great Leap Forward starts with young people: Fortunately/unfortunately, the path to sustainability in digital government service delivery runs through the training of the next generation of civil servants. While progress can be made on the current generation of government servants, the digital cultural revolution in government will only take hold if aspiring civil servants are trained in digital-age development practices, product planning and skills as early as high school and throughout their years in higher education.

Public policy and international relations schools like the Harvard Kennedy School and The Fletcher School will need to evolve to provide the necessary workforce for tomorrow so that governments can be staffed with personnel armed with the appropriate digital skill sets. Like in government, there are many political battles ahead in injecting a digital mindset throughout the curriculum. It will also take governments and the private sector actors (i.e. the consumers) to begin rewarding students through job placements for these schools to change admissions, hiring and curriculum practices.

The Revolution will not be televised, or tweeted — it will be taught.

As always, the effectiveness of government rests on its workforce. If we are not training the future workforce for a faster, iterative and data-driven world, then we can deploy all the special ops digital teams we would like and ultimately still fail. The battle for the future of government rests in education. Cutting through all the slick presentations and mindful recitations, education has been the one word that has been noticeably absent from most, if not all, of these digital service teams. But with any cultural revolution, education is the battle that matters most.

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