Building a human-centered ecosystem for government innovation

How we can improve service delivery by giving government professionals a place to learn and thrive.

TL;DR — People are the cornerstone of any successful effort to make government work better. AGL’s member community provides a support network and collaboration opportunities for government professionals who are working to bring modern, innovative practices to the public sector. Join us!

AGL members Joshua Seckel and Matias Nino with the NOVA agile meetup group

With a new year around the corner and a new set of government officials recently elected, there will be much talk of how public servants plan to deliver on their promises and how agencies plan to improve the quality of their programs. It’s a variation on the continued discussion that 21st-century governments have been having for awhile: in an age when private sector services are fast, responsive, data-driven, and user-focused, how can government catch up?

Underpinning all the methodologies and recommendations for modernizing, there actually is a secret ingredient — people. Government services are requested, built, and delivered by humans to serve other humans. Whether managing modular contracts or prioritizing open source software or doing anything else to improve outcomes, the people in charge of government activities must graduate from outdated assumptions and ways of working. All successful efforts to improve government service delivery are rooted in the understanding that change happens at the human level.

All successful efforts to improve government service delivery are rooted in the understanding that change happens at the human level.

But as humans, changing established thought patterns and behavior is hard. We want to understand the benefits of a new idea (often by observing others) before we try it ourselves. We prefer to feel safe and secure in our careers, even as we try to think outside the box to make things work better. And we need community — we need each other to help new ideas take root through learning, sharing, and culture change.

Recognizing this, AGL was established in 2014 as an emergent network of civic professionals who knew one thing very clearly: the old way of building things wasn’t working, and agile processes could help make it better. They pooled their knowledge, time, and experiences to create resources like the Agile Government Handbook and an online curriculum to help agencies learn how to bring agile culture into the public sector context. They hosted virtual panel discussions where folks could talk about experiences and lessons learned. These efforts provided much-needed community and conversation for government innovators at a time when agile (fast, collaborative, iterative) and government (slow, siloed, risk-averse) seemed almost incompatible.

Fast forward a few years, and public sector innovation has come a long way. Organizations like 18F, USDS, and Code For America have provided guidance and demonstrated what’s possible with user-centered, delivery-focused government. Programs like DITAP and DHS’ Procurement Innovation Lab are building the capacity of public servants to purchase and manage modern digital services. More agencies are prioritizing agile initiatives, trying new tactics, daring to experiment — and thus the need for community and connection remains vital.

More agencies are prioritizing agile initiatives, trying new tactics, daring to experiment — and thus the need for community and connection remains vital.

Meanwhile, AGL’s network has grown to include over one thousand federal, state and local government technology professionals, private sector representatives, and civic activists across the United States and the world. They collectively represent a wealth of information and boots-on-the-ground experience with helping government modernize. AGL established a non-profit trade association this year to continue building the community and to foster a better ecosystem for all the individuals who are trying to improve things in their organizations.

So, how will we do it?

Help government innovators find each other.

As people in government find new ways to improve upon the status quo, we also want them to find each other. It can be challenging for folks to make connections outside their own agency and across levels of government, but if we give them accessible avenues for identifying people (both public and private sector) who have dealt with similar issues or initiated similar changes, there will be faster adoption of ideas that work.

“The government innovation community brings knowledge and experience, and AGL provides a space for us all to connect and grow as professionals,” says Angie Quirarte, who leads Digital Engagement at California Government Operations Agency and serves on the board of AGL. “There is value in knowing you are not alone.”

“There is value in knowing you are not alone.”

Tim Nolan, a founding member of AGL and IT manager at Collin County, Texas, is eager to bring more local governments into the fold. “There are over 3000 counties in the U.S. and most of them can benefit from being more agile,” he says. “Some are trying it out, but may not know that others are doing it too. I want them to find each other so they can share tangible information about what’s working for them.”

Help people learn.

Ann Dunkin teaches about culture change in government during an AGL Live discussion.

There are new skills and concepts to learn (and old ones to un-learn) as we work to bring government more fully into the 21st century. Working across silos, hiring multidisciplinary teams, managing agile contracts, deriving value from free and open source software, measuring customer happiness — real progress depends on government staff learning the nuts and bolts of modernization. How does it look in real life? How does it work when <insert tricky problem defined by decades of mismanagement, legacy software, understaffed office, and limited funding>?

Real progress depends on government staff learning the nuts and bolts of modernization.

People in government want to learn, according to Ann Dunkin, CIO at the County of Santa Clara who serves on AGL’s Board of Directors. “During my time in government as I have talked with staff at various agencies, it became apparent to me just how deeply they all cared about their missions and that they were eager to learn and change if someone gave them the slightest opportunity to improve things,” she says.

The “opportunity to improve things” is what AGL brings to its member community — the chance for individuals in both government and industry to find information, develop skills, compare notes, share perspectives, and stay current with modernization trends.

Encourage better dialogue.

Chaeny Emanavin speaks on iterative and open practices in government at the launch of Code California.

From procurement through design and delivery, fostering open dialogue between government and industry is essential to building services that work for users and meet agency objectives. Soraya Correa, chief procurement officer for Department of Homeland Security, encourages agencies to have meaningful conversations with vendors instead of just going through the motions. “[Make] sure that you create an opportunity to get really good interactive dialogue going between government and industry, working to get better information,” she said in an interview with Federal News Network.

Creating a space for open dialogue is also a goal of progressive industry firms who want to share their learnings with each other to benefit everyone serving government, points out Julia Schaumburg, a member of AGL and a civic service design expert. “This is a wonderful opportunity for folks to talk about the reality of doing the work on the ground,” she says. “We don’t want that info to be siloed in a specific company. It can help everyone.”

AGL promotes honest conversations that allow public and private sector members to contribute their specialized knowledge to the greater goals of openness and transparency in government — while getting more and better work done.

AGL promotes honest conversations that allow public and private sector members to contribute their specialized knowledge to the greater goals of openness and transparency in government — while getting more and better work done. Sharing best practices for communication across silos will allow more actionable information to be exchanged and accelerate the improvement of government services.

Increase safety for government innovators.

Mike Palmer talks about supporting government innovators during an AGL Live discussion.

Initial efforts to transform government need to be protected and championed until “new” becomes “normal.” Mike Palmer, who works to improve procurement at DHS Digital Service, says government workers want to do “amazing things” to help their programs succeed, but they want to feel safe doing it. “Taking risks, being innovative, failing fast — these are things that federal staff are not motivated to do,” he said during an AGL Live panel discussion on government transformation. “There are different approaches being taken in government to tackle this . . . but it all comes back to people, and finding ways to motivate them to change.”

There are practical ways for agencies to incentivize innovation — for example, re-structuring performance evaluations or changing success metrics to reflect a culture that says “we’ve got your back” — but until these tactics become more widespread, innovators need to have their efforts socialized, shared, and applauded as publicly as possible. AGL provides a safety net for change makers as they work creatively within regulations to achieve better outcomes for their programs.

AGL provides a safety net for change makers as they work creatively within regulations to achieve better outcomes for their programs.

“An important goal for this organization is to measure and improve the level of safety that government innovators feel,” says Henry Poole, a founding member of AGL and head of a government-focused digital services firm. “They should know they have a community that can support them when it comes to taking risks and trying new things. Right now, people in government often feel that no one has their back. We want to help change that.”

Create opportunities for partnership.

A network of agile and progressive-minded professionals brings more visibility to the small, progressive firms who are helping governments change the status quo. AGL provides opportunities for them to find each other and share strategies for successful engagements as we all learn together what modern digital service partnerships can look like. Government staff can use the community as a chance to learn more, in an informal and risk-free environment, about the people who work at these companies.

“We can help agencies learn how to partner with digital service vendors from procurement through delivery,” says Nic Wissman, an AGL member whose firm helps government solve infrastructure and engineering problems. “And it doesn’t stop there — we need to keep our eyes and ears open, listening to government folks to understand what they’re facing. No matter how good a technical vendor is, a project cannot reach its full potential unless it’s a true partnership from both sides.”

Support and celebrate individuals.

Professional growth and support for the individual are a core focus of AGL as we work to create an ecosystem where people are recognized for their personal contributions to government innovation. Members can explore career opportunities, improve their professional qualifications, and network with like-minded folks regardless of their organization, title, or specialty.

“It’s challenging for government to find a group that focuses on the individual,” says Dan Levenson, an AGL member who helps agencies modernize their software and services. “This group meets people exactly where they are, providing the tools and resources they need for what they’re facing at the moment.”

AGL is a space for these leaders and learners — the people who are advocating for change in all their various practices and organizations — to find, support, and learn from each other.

“Capacity building is one of the greatest benefits of this organization,” says Ben Morris, an AGL member who works to get better software into the hands of government employees. “By making people more knowledgeable and capable across the board — from the program office to project management to contracting and so forth — the whole network is empowered to make better use of taxpayer dollars by helping government services be more effective.”

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From a newly minted Scrum Master at a city agency leading a small agile IT team, to a UX field worker interviewing DMV staff, to a classroom full of federal “procuremenati” learning how to creatively buy modern digital services, people are busy making government work better. AGL is a space for these leaders and learners — the people who are advocating for change in all their various practices and organizations — to find, support, and learn from each other.

Let’s get busy building an ecosystem for government innovation that puts individuals at the forefront of the change we want to see in the world. Join us!