Improving government digital services: 7 takeaways from 2018

A year-end reflection on the civic tech landscape and how it informs our work

Rachel Kauff
Dec 21, 2018 · 7 min read

The past year has brought increased clarity around the steps government needs to take in order to deliver better services to the public. Open standards, security, accessibility, and human-centered design have emerged as top priorities. We are inspired by the people and organizations who have been working to better define these imperatives in the government context and figure out how to accomplish them.

As 2018 wraps, we’re looking back on the opportunities we’ve had to support the growth of a more capable and user-focused government. From educating agencies on the implementation of free and open source software, to modernizing platforms for veterans to access benefits, to maintaining open data sites for federal agencies (and all kinds of other stuff), we’ve kept busy with new projects and partnerships. Good thing we added 12 talented folks to our team this year (but we’re still looking for more!)

What 2018 taught us about helping government work better:

Focus on delivery

As government thinks about modernization strategies, the focus should remain on improving service delivery. This means embracing best practices like agile and service design, while also creating metrics to measure success and supporting innovation initiatives at the policy level. The simple outcome should be that people who need government services can access them reliably through friendly digital interactions.

How we helped focus on delivery in 2018

  • Worked with Department of Veterans Affairs on modernizing the platform to give veterans better access to services and benefits
  • Brought service design principles to California DMV so the agency could implement new requirements without disrupting workflows for staff and end-users
  • Built a central portal for the Department of Justice to make FOIA requests easier and faster for agencies and the public
  • Worked on the modernization of California’s platform for Medicaid payments (CA-MMIS) to help Californians access their benefits more smoothly

Build capacity within government

The modernization of government depends on educating and training public servants so they can understand, buy, and manage digital services. Efforts are underway to build capacity and foster a learning-oriented culture in government organizations. We have always worked to share our agile practices and culture with our clients, but the growing emphasis on education within government has given us the change to expand into official training offerings.

How we helped build capacity within government in 2018

  • Launched the first of our Education Services — DITAP training to support federal staff in buying modern digital services and understanding best practices
  • Facilitated agile trainings at the California Office of Innovation to help state workers learn core principles of iteration and user-focused development
  • Educated government teams on the business value, legal concepts, and compliance strategies of free and open source software

Embrace open standards

Open standards allow everyone to participate in the business of creating a more collaborative and efficient government. Open data and free and open source software can help agencies reduce costs and accomplish more good with their information. But there are plenty of challenges to successful implementation of open standards — and we welcome every opportunity to contribute and learn from the open source communities that are working to make it easier for government to “default to open” as recommended by the U.S. Digital Service.

How we helped embrace open standards in 2018

  • Celebrated six years and two new releases of the DKAN open data platform that allows agencies to share and visualize their data
  • Participated in discussions with California Government Operations Agency (GovOps) to help the state create its own open source playbook and policies
  • Planned for the future of growing DKAN’s capabilities with a prototype for Drupal 8
  • Created a DKAN module to empower the scientific research community to share their findings and collaborate for greater impact
  • Helped the U.S. Department of Agriculture expand its data-sharing resource to help agricultural researchers get information and solve problems faster
  • Worked with the Department of Education on a CKAN data portal to make education data publicly accessible and usable
  • Helped Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Veterans Affairs keep their data portals clean, relevant, and up to date
  • Presented at LibrePlanet on the evolution of free software and government procurement policies
  • Partnered with Viderum and the General Services Administration to help agencies create their own open data sites with the click of a button

Prioritize user experience

Good technology puts people at the heart of the project — not just in words, but in the actual work of user research and discovery, human-centered design, and taking accessibility seriously. Agencies must invest in processes that help project teams address the diverse needs and experiences of people that use digital services. We work with our government partners to ask the right questions and make informed decisions that result in better service delivery.

How we helped prioritize user experience in 2018

Build a people-first culture

Problems are solved faster in an environment of open communication where people aren’t afraid to fail. We’re committed to modeling an agile culture that puts people first, encourages experimentation, and celebrates learning. Sharing this culture with our government clients can help them change the status quo and start transformation within their own agencies.

How we helped build a people-first culture in 2018

Invest in modern technology

While the benefits of agile processes and modern technologies are becoming more apparent to government, big challenges still remain. Replacing legacy systems, developing better technical infrastructure, building continuous improvement pipelines, and complying with security mandates are complex undertakings. We’ve been applying agile principles to all aspects of modernization to develop new strategies that make things easier for agencies — like a faster ATO process and a dedicated practice of building a DevOps culture (hint: it’s not just about the automation tools).

How we helped invest in modern technology in 2018

  • Provided FedRAMP-compliant technical security for an international collaboration platform
  • Improved the DevOps process at Child Welfare Digital Services so new features can ship early and often
  • Provided DevOps hosting architecture, development, and automated testing for the National Science Foundation
  • Shared our favorite tools for automated testing in Drupal — as well as small steps to create a healthy DevOps culture
  • Generated a 300-page system security plan (SSP) by automating the steps to federal IT security approval for the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education
  • Continued to develop security awareness training within our own organization
  • Helped team members achieve Security + and CISSP certifications to meet the newest federal security requirements for system administrators
  • Improved our own Docker-based “Bowline” infrastructure to support the sandboxes, continuous integration, and production operations that make our work possible

Build partnership and community

Helping government work better is a collaborative effort. Sharing insight across forums, contributing to open source communities, and seeking new partnerships helps us combine our abilities to better serve government and its constituents.

How we helped build partnership and community in 2018

Welcome, 2019

With the start of 2019, we look forward to building on lessons learned in promoting a more open, empowered, and service-oriented government. We’re seeking others who want to join in the work. Happy new year!


Open and Agile Government Digital Services

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