Only new mistakes: Embracing failures while building digital service teams

Designers at the UK’s Government Digital Service

Code for America Summit was an incredible opportunity for technologists, civil servants, concerned community members, and more to come together and celebrate the successes of the civic tech community at large. We often talk about lifting each other up, which is something we have to do to achieve those successes. But perhaps even more importantly, we need to lift each other up in moments when we aren’t succeeding.

This Summit is about the amazing wins and great work everyone is doing, but we’re not talking enough about how hard the work is and how often we fail.
— Chris Govias, Chief of Design at the Canadian Digital Service

This was the topic of an incredible breakout session at Summit, led by members of digital service teams from all over the country (and the globe): the UK’s Government Digital Service, the United States Digital Service, the Canadian Digital Service, and Digital Services Georgia.

Digital service team panelists from around the world at Code for America Summit

So you want to build a digital service team

“There should be a German word for waking up and thinking ‘I have no idea where we are going.’” — Matt Cutts, Acting Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service.

First thing’s first: what is a digital service team? They’re structured differently depending on the size and location of government they sit within, but their mission is always the same: to improve and simplify the digital experience that people have with their government.

The USDS was launched in 2014 by the Obama Administration (and our own Jennifer Pahlka) as a small team of digital experts that would work with other government agencies to improve their service delivery and online experiences. But for several years, their greatest challenge was to simply justify their own existence in the government ecosystem of stretched budgets.

And this challenge is hardly unique to the USDS. From the city level all the way up to the federal level, from San Francisco to Georgia to Canada, digital service teams are more than accustomed to failures. But they aren’t necessarily facing failures of a technical nature; instead, they are failing while attempting to navigate large, multi-tentacled bureaucracies. Fledgling digital services will unfailingly face challenges from the government agencies around them, and to justify their continued existence they have to answer these important questions:

  • How do you get buy-in from your organization?
  • How do you build momentum for your team?
  • How do you have resilience in the face of those who slow your progress, or might want to shut you down entirely?

Capitalizing on crisis

One technique that has been successful for both the USDS and the UK’s Government Digital Service is to look for moments of crisis where a digital service team can step in to save the day. “Civil servants love a good crisis,” said Cutts. A moment of crisis can serve as an excellent entry point for a digital service team to prove its necessity and its value to a skeptical government agency.

Lou Downe, Director of Design and Service Standards at the GDS, learned this the hard way. They offered support to a government agency at a time where there wasn’t a crisis, and tried to enact what they thought were helpful changes in how that agency conducted its business. The trouble is, the people running the agency had such change fatigue that the last thing they wanted was for someone to show up with new solutions to things they didn’t see as problems. “I said ‘I can help!’ so many times that they banned me from the building,” said Downe. Technologists need to reconfigure the problem-solving approach. We should always strive to understand an agency’s problems as they are understood by the people actually experiencing them, not solely from a technical point of view.

Key lessons in keeping the lights on

If you’re trying to establish or grow a digital service, you’ll obviously face different challenges depending on the level of government where you are operating, the laws of the city/state/country you are operating in, and the structures of the government agencies around you. But over the one-hour discussion at Summit, some key lessons emerged across the experiences of each of the teams:

  1. Understand problems as the people who are experiencing them understand them. Take off your technologist hat for a moment and really get to know the issue from the perspective of the person/people/agency you’re trying to help.
  2. Look beyond digital. Always start by looking at the underlying problems to a less-than-ideal digital experience. Digital Services Georgia was tasked with rebuilding a website, but found that the problem didn’t really lie with the interface or navigation but the content itself, which led to a content owner training and certification program. Once that step was completed, the digital team could begin their work on the website.
  3. Chip away at a problem. Change is often incremental, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t solve a large and long-standing problem on your first try. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we aren’t going to fix all of the issues around procurement at once.
  4. Celebrate incremental successes. Each one of those chips is a win, so make sure you treat them as such!
  5. Be patient, and be resilient. Take it from Downe: “The people who have the most impact in government are the people who survive the longest.”

Sprinkler systems, not fire hoses

So if you’re currently sitting on (or hoping to join) a digital service team and banging your forehead against the wall, know that you’re far from alone. The UK Government Digital Service, which served in many ways as a blueprint for all of the federal and local digital service teams in the US that followed, was only established seven years ago. Since then, digital service teams have been acting as firefighters — but the goal is to build sprinkler systems. We have a long way to go, but we’ve had a lot of wins already.

  • More than 600,000 veterans are now able to apply for health and education benefits online at vets.gov, after decades of paper-only applications with exceedingly long processing times.
  • San Francisco Digital Services transitioned the city’s affordable housing lottery from raffle tickets to a simple, streamlined online application, and saw 87% digital take-up.
  • In Georgia, there is now a Chief Digital Officer whose emails are finally being answered because “Chief” is in front of their title!

And remember: to have successes, you need to exist in the first place. So if you’re still here, still working to improve people’s digital experience with government, that’s a success in and of itself. Thank you for your service.