Only new mistakes: Embracing failures while building digital service teams

Designers at the UK’s Government Digital Service
Digital service team panelists from around the world at Code for America Summit

So you want to build a digital service team

  • 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.

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. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Celebrate incremental successes. Each one of those chips is a win, so make sure you treat them as such!
  4. 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.

  • 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!

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.


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Minnie Ingersoll

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Founder, investor, enthusiast

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.