Building an Office of Digital Innovation that supports accelerates innovation at all levels of government.

This post is part of a series created by the California Public Technology Roundtable. Read more about the Roundtable, see a list of all participants, and learn more about our first meeting here.

As of March 19, 2019 the top idea in the ongoing “all our ideas” poll surfacing hopes and dreams for the new California Office of Digital Innovation (ODI) calls for “more prototyping and proof-of-concept projects that get user tested by users BEFORE signing full-on multi-million dollar contracts.”

Like 18F, the federal government based digital service, California’s new Office of Digital Innovation could magnify the impact of its Sacramento-based operations by utilizing internal, departmental and remote cross-functional, project-oriented teams, Similarly, small satellite offices across the state to support a new paradigm of user-centered service design and technology development.

Modeled after the United States Digital Services (USDS) agency teams and building on the successes of California Health and Human Services open data and Office of Innovation efforts, the ODI would have internal teams that work independently and across state agencies to solve government-wide challenges. CHHS engaged with 18F, USDS, Code for America, and other leaders to refine what innovation means in the context of CHHS departments and programs.

Key themes for CHHS’ teams include:

  • human-centered design approaches,
  • data and analytics,
  • digital services,
  • starting proof of concept projects with smaller initial scope,
  • focus on ability to replicate/scale,
  • agile development,
  • transforming procurement options for departments.

Building on this experience, ODI teams could nurture and then work with digital services teams within each of the state agencies, made up of existing state staff and outside talent. ODI teams would focus on delivering solutions while teaching design-driven methodologies to the agency as a whole. This provides an effective way to spread these new methodologies while allowing each agency to structure the effort in a way consistent with their culture and readiness.

This distributed model would rapidly develop tools to tackle specific challenges and influence changes in the operations of the much larger California government. California has over 883,000 state and local government employees, per Governing magazine, or over 17,500x times the staff of the proposed ODI. The truth is that no matter how talented, fifty technologists could never “fix” all the suboptimal digital and service delivery practices in California government. However ODI can be a force multiplier and help accelerate the wave of change towards better government digital services already occurring across California (and beyond!).

The ODI can serve as a convener and coordinator. Departments can use the methods and practices best suited to their needs while following the larger set of principles, avoiding redundant efforts and setting matched priorities. This model helps drive effective outcomes while building on statewide strengths. In this model the ODI serves the role that USDS (and others) describe as Strategic Operations or “StratOps”. These functions are all focused on ensuring that the digital service teams can improve their velocity in delivering value to employees and constituents alike.

ODI StratOps includes the department leadership: the director, the deputy, and the leaders of each discipline — design, product, software engineering, and procurement. This leadership sets priorities, overall strategic direction of the agency teams and methodologies used. They support the agency team heads, organize resources, establish training vehicles and reduce redundancy by prioritizing each agency’s digital service office efforts. StratOps includes staff in the bureaucracy-buster role. These are experts that remove blockers caused by interpretations of policy, who can also recommend policy and legislation changes where necessary to improve performance. In addition, Human Resources leadership and recruiters are included in StratOps to ensure that fresh talent is available and are properly on-boarded into state service to become productive quickly.

Distributed, small, rapid-prototyping teams could be complemented by a centralized core team working on deep infrastructural issues cutting across areas of government operations. Those infrastructural issues include areas like identity management and could build on the lessons learned from government single sign on efforts like login.gov. Another area is streamlining procurement, the white whale of public technology, and similarly could build on efforts like the 18F open source micropurchase marketplace and numerous other initiatives.

Beyond Sacramento, The Office of Digital Innovation could have small 6–8 person digital service ‘strike teams’ spread across the state, made up of highly skilled design, product and development experts. These ‘strike teams’ could go into high priority problem areas with a bias towards action to fix problems using modern product-focused digital service techniques. The past decade of public technology successes (and failures) has emphatically shown the power of small cross-functional teams. That model has been utilized to great success at USDS and 18F, the federal government based digital services units. However, these teams are small part of the overall effort needed to move the needle for California. These strike teams represent the model for digital service teams that each state agency will replicate in their own digital service offices, and eventually be replicated across county and other governmental organizations throughout California.

While we should take the positive lessons from 18F and USDS, it’s also important to realize the limitations of the model. Without adequate funding, amazing staff, and support across all departments, these efforts will take longer and have less impact. It will be necessary to constantly evaluate the structure, work, and strategies of the ODI, bringing an agile approach to the agency itself, not only its technology products.

Despite the challenges ahead, a team-based, outward-focused model for the Office of Digital Innovation will dramatically improve services in California. We support the proposed ODI funding and look forward to implementation that both prioritizes the work of experts and relies on integrating the best practices of digital services design and delivery to create sustainable and deep impact.

If you’re interested in learning more about future Roundtable events, please complete this form.

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A volunteer group of California’s civic technology leaders developing recommendations for the Office of Digital Innovation

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Patrick Atwater

Patrick Atwater

Just another California dreamer

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