Building digital teams in government

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 outcomes.

Why does what works work?

Questions that are driving this work include, what does it feel like to be inside a high-performing digital team within government, and how does that experience differ from working inside a team that’s not thriving?

I’m also interested in secondary questions like:

  • How is leadership structured on these teams?
  • What is their origin story?
  • Where are these teams positioned within the organization?
  • How do they make decisions internally and also with leadership and lines of business?
  • What tools do they use to prototype and build services?
  • What kinds of skill sets exist on the team?
  • How have the organizations around these teams changed or been disrupted?
  • Have the tools and methods of digital started to create cultural ripples in how that organization communicates and makes decisions?
  • What has started changing in IT departments who get paired with a high functioning digital team?

In my experience, digital work — when taken seriously as an iterative, research-driven, user-centric practice — should disrupt an organization’s cultural norms. And since the public sector is currently in a cultural race with digital society, some disruption is necessary to accelerate the pace of change.

The way of working that got us to a world of enterprise backoffice systems and traditional one-way communication and service delivery channels won’t take us to the next stage in our evolution.

What is digital anyway?

For clarity, I define digital based on the OECD’s description of digital government: open, participatory, and innovative.

  • Open: digital government is characterized by transparency, trust, and interoperability.
  • Participatory: digital government engages citizens in co-creation and the work of government.
  • Innovative: digital government changes existing business models finding new ways to deliver service and creating new operational possibilities.

This breed of government doesn’t emerge just from buying a “better website” or standing up a service delivery portal. When done right, digital work becomes a change agent to reframe the relationship between government organization and citizen (or resident, or customer, or whatever language your organization prefers) based on government being a service provider.

What creates cultural change?

If we’re striving for cultural change within government, to inspire a reframing of the relationship between organization and customer, what is the nature of the change agent that can catalyze this transformation? To me, there are four required ingredients:

Intellectual and emotional buy in to the vision and program from the top levels of leadership. Change like this doesn’t happen unless the organization is all in. Change will ruffle feathers, and top-down alignment is critical for ensuring everyone stays the course.

Clearly defined outcomes. This requires education for leadership on the nature of what digital work is like. Too many “digital strategies” are aspirational statements so abstracted from both current state and actual outcomes that stagnation occurs because no one can tell if change is happening and nothing can be measured.

A published roadmap of actionable initiatives. This is a big one. The UK GDS team has done a great job of creating a roadmap that explains what they are actually doing to make organization-wide change happen. It’s critical to explain not just what outcomes you’re aiming for but to explain how you’re going to get there and show measurable progress as you go.

A team who can lead the work and model new ways of thinking. Your digital office or team is the most critical ingredient, and this is the ingredient that will actually catalyze change, although it can’t work without the other three.

Building your team

Digital teams within government have to perform at the same level as any digital product team. Each service and artifact (i.e. website, mobile app) is a product, and getting it right requires the same skill sets you’d find in any product team in Silicon Valley.

Whiteboard wall showing the definition of a service at the Canadian Digital Service work space.

We recently visited the new Canadian Digital Service in Ottawa, and found a floor with nearly 60 digital professionals including researchers, policy people, designers, content strategists, developers, devops specialists, account managers, project managers, and testers, and working iteratively together. The floor space was open and flexible, and the walls were painted with white board paint so that teams could form work spaces quickly around a specific project, then re-group and re-organize when the next project came forward.

Skill set of a digital team

Thinking about space, skill sets, and recruitment is mandatory. We’ve built a list of skills that need to be represented within most digital teams. How you break those skills down into roles and how you bring those roles into your organization (hires, secondment, vendors, etc) is up to your organization. But you likely need some of the following capabilities on your team:

  • A champion of digital who can execute and sell the vision
  • User research and service design
  • Information architecture and library sciences
  • Content strategy and editing
  • Technical prototyping and design
  • User experience and interaction design
  • Statistical analysis and web analytics
  • DevOps and System Administration
  • Project management
  • QA and testing
  • Training and documentation

Think about space

Two of the challenges that a digital team can solve are breaking down organizational silos, and breaking the “fourth wall” of government by allowing citizens to participate directly in research and testing.

The entrance to a break out room at the Canadian Digital Service work space in Ottawa.

Two of the practices that we recommend that require thinking about actual office space design are:

  • Build a UX Lab: You need to create a physical space where members of the public can enter your building for research and testing purposes. Your digital team is the window to the outside world for departments and lines of business.
  • Build an Innovation Lab: You need to create a physical space where your digital team and your IT team can spend longer periods of time working on early stage technology projects to validate design and interface requirements. Getting the digital team and the IT team aligned is key to your success.

Create your roadmap

We’ve got a roadmap for digital transformation. It looks at information practice, service design practice, digital team formation, and digital platform and architecture. We’re happy to share it with you if you reach out, and once it’s a bit more mature we’ll be publishing it to share.

If you’ve not seen a roadmap, the UK GDS has done some excellent work building both high level product roadmaps as well as simple team-based roadmaps.

The team is the strategy

One of the hidden truths of digital transformation is that it’s a people problem first, a cultural problem second, and a technology problem third.

Creating a cross-disciplinary team within your organization to work together, provide evidence for their decision process, stay close enough to results and business outcomes that they can pivot as needed, and socialize this new way of getting work done throughout your organization is the most important benefit.

Of course, you’ll also start to produce better digital systems and touch points for citizens and clients.

If you need help mapping out how to do this, and solve some of the platform and architecture problems, that’s what we do. Call me if this is a problem you’re trying to solve.