One of my professional habits is talking to digital leaders in government. I like to ask them how they achieved success in digital transformation. What levers did they pull? What have they learned?

I’ve spoken to leaders in New York and Calgary, British Columbia and California, Canada, the UK and the US, as well as paragovernment teams like Code for America. Over time, a series of lessons have emerged.

It’s not a paint by numbers plan, it’s the tougher path of changing the mindset of the organization. That takes time, alignment, discipline, and leadership.

1. Make digital the first line of service

This principle is key to the…


DMV offices in Sacramento, CA getting ready for the presentation

Last week I got to spend a morning in Sacramento, CA at the DMV. Spending time at the DMV is not something most people get excited about, but this was different. I was there because City Innovate had sent an invitation. City Innovate’s Startup In Residence (StIR) program helps governments to buy emergent technology. The State of California asked them to help solve a complex and urgent problem.

The problem

California’s DMV needs to process three times the Real ID transactions in 2020 than they have capacity for. It takes 35m of on-site processing time to apply for a Real ID. …


I’ve have multiple conversations lately with public sector clients who are searching for a CRM (Customer Relationship Management software). If you’re thinking about this, then you’re starting with the right intent: it’s good to want to treat citizens like customers, and to invest in tools to improve those relationships. But a CRM is likely the wrong tool for the job you’re trying to do.

What job is CRM designed to support?

The problem with CRM as a solution for government, is that a CRM is designed to solve a different job. CRM software is intended to solve the problems of coordinating and operating a sales team. …


People who run professional services teams often optimize systems to aim at the wrong metrics. By aiming at more useful metrics, you can change the results and have a healthier business.

In a project-oriented professional services team, profit is the result of completing work within a fixed time period, and having revenue associated with that work be greater than your costs.

How much money do I need to make?

My conversations with colleagues who run services teams often leads to billable efficiency, or out of the hours that you pay someone to be at work, how many of those hours can be billed to a client? Every agency…


My team and I at Yellow Pencil are developing a roadmap for digital transformation. It’s based on lessons learned from organizations you may be familiar with like the UK GDS, the USDS, the CDS, and Code for America. But it’s also based on the work of leaders like Estonia, Australia, Yukon, the City of Mississauga, and the City of New York. Some we’ve interviewed, some we work with closely, some we’ve read about with admiration.

If you’re working inside a team that’s thriving, we’d like to hear from you to learn about what you started doing differently to create better…


Years ago I built a simple tool to help me think about digital projects, and I still use it today. It’s not a comprehensive framework for thinking about all things digital. But it can be a useful lens to mitigate your unique cognitive bias when planning, pitching, or managing a project.

In addition, it’s also a tool to enable perspective seeking, which is one of the most important personal skills that you can develop in life.

When to use

Any time you are creating a new digital project or feature, it’s good to consider all four facets of this tool. Reflect on each…


If you run a mid-sized public sector website then you could be spending $400,000 each year in hidden content costs.

WTF? (What’s That Formula?)

We work with public/plural sector clients: cities, regional governments, crown corporations, non-governmental organizations, universities, unions, etc.

The one thing in common with all of them is that they create a LOT of content. In fact, when these are service-oriented organizations (like a city), information and data (content) is probably the largest digital service that they provide.

One thing that we don’t often consider is the hard cost of content. So here’s one way to think about it. …


I believe that leaders investing in diversity is the most expedient path toward improving the outcomes of technology transformation initiatives.

More talk, less rock

I’m still a songwriter, but you’d barely know it. I’ve stopped writing in the last few years and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Something is inhibiting my creativity.

My blocker may be that I don’t know what the world needs to hear from a middle-aged, middle class, white male. The world hears a lot from people similar to me who have the aim to divide, polarize, and fortify traditional but disintegrating power centres. …


It’s common knowledge that Canada has a lot of Gords. Our national anthem is “Gord Save the Queen”. But who are they? This quick reference sheet will help you to keep up and look cool at parties that Canadians attend.

Gord Lightfoot — Folk singer. Canada’s version of Bruce Springsteen crossed with Pete Seeger but with more railroad and shipwreck (like “more cowbell” but instead “shipwreck”.

Gord Campbell — Former mayor of Vancouver, and Liberal premier of British Columbia. Most famous for trying to simplify sales tax in BC and being soundly rebuked by his constituents.

Gord Downie — Lead…


Recently, a colleague asked me for advice for one of her team members who wishes to find his way into web work from traditional design. To get into web work, IMO, start with the basic building blocks: HTML and CSS.

I haven’t had to answer a question about how to learn HTML in a while, so I did what I do when I don’t know what I’m talking about (which is a lot): I ask smarter people, like the team I work with at Yellow Pencil. Here’s what they had to say about getting started with HTML and CSS:

Tallitha…

Paul Bellows

Once and future songwriter, digital transformation for organizations, north but not as north as some. yellowpencil.com

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