Should Governor-Elect Newsom create a California Digital Service?

by Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America, and David Eaves, Harvard Kennedy School

A few weeks ago, Gavin Newsom, the author the tech-forward book Citizenville and a strong early supporter of data as a strategic asset of government, was elected California’s 40th governor. He will inherit a workforce of 200,000 career public servants. Some of these public servants, led by Chief Information Officer Amy Tong and other agency secretaries, are engaged in a bold experiment to deliver services to the people of California a manner more appropriate to the digital age. Following a playbook written by their federal government peers in the United States Digital Service and its sister organization, 18F, the team in California has had measurable success. The new governor has an opportunity to build on and significantly accelerate California’s progress toward reshaping a government that works as it should in today’s world. For many, the assumed first step would be to create California’s version of the United States Digital Service (USDS). The question is, should he?

Maybe. In our view, the opportunity to make California a shining star of digital government is enormous, and should be a top priority for the new administration. USDS is, and remains, a transformational organization, one that changed the game and showed that federal government could absolutely do digital the right way, building on similar work by Code for America at the state and local level. But creating a California Digital Service in the exact mold of the USDS is not the only path.

Digital service teams have always been an implementation tactic for a broader aim: getting government to more effectively deliver to the public what we have asked of it. While digital service teams may bring a fresh pairs of eyes and skill sets less common among the current civil service, it is the career public servants who understand most acutely the gap between the aims of policy and what the public is currently receiving in the end. What they need is the protection to speak honestly about the gaps in current service delivery, to measure those gaps, and to experiment with new approaches. Any changes carry risk, and the path to improving things starts with a clear statement that there is both risk in trying to make things better and in not trying to change anything at all.

The USDS today serves as a 200-person strong unit that is often compared to “special forces.” They have the skills, experience — and often the backing — to apply the new playbook. They have, for instance, partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to employ user-centered design principles, a modern tech stack, and an iterative process to make an application that has already allowed 420,000 veterans to access health benefits, when previous applications failed for most users. They help agencies and the department serve the American people at a far higher quality and a far lower cost. Most importantly, they make things possible that previously weren’t.

The principles and practices that shape USDS’s work (and CfA’s work) are absolutely what California should adopt, and with as much speed and care as its public servants can muster. However, when USDS was founded, it was less clear whether the principles and practices of strong user focus and agile iterative development could work, or scale, in a government context. This is no longer the case. Both in the U.S. and around the world, digital service groups have demonstrated that this new approach is successful. So we no longer need a special forces group to test the hypothesis; we need an approach that scales what works. So the question now is what organizational structures will best enable adoption of these new principles and practices?

In addition, California has already begun to go down much the same path as the USDS. They’ve already learned to embrace user-centered design, employed an agile procurement process to take a radically new approach to rebuilding the child welfare system, and tackled a complex IT challenge to implement new cannabis regulations (in under a year, and under budget). This direction has served them well. Mike Wilkening, Secretary of California Health and Human Services, has been very clear not only about the challenges in moving from a monolithic, waterfall software development and IT contracting approach to a modular, user-centered one, but also about how much he prefers the latter. “It hasn’t been easy,” he said recently at a Harvard Kennedy School convening, “but we’re quickly building our skills and bench strength in the new mode, and we’re so much better off than we would have been if we’d stuck with the old way.”

If the goal is to build the capacity of the state to deliver services in a digital era, let’s make sure we work from a theory of change that gets us there and doesn’t just give us a team that fixes websites while the rest of government IT continues in the old way.

The first risk of the USDS structure is that public servants may see this elite unit as the only ones with the mandate and air cover to run the new playbook. By inference, those who’ve been operating in the legacy model may see themselves as having permission to continue in that model. Transformation is someone else’s job. Regardless of the structure, let’s make sure everyone is aware that the new models are designed for them and that they are empowered to work in new ways.

Second, anyone who has worked at Code for America, USDS, 18F or practiced digital transformation will tell you that the career civil servants they partner with are the key to its success. They know the program, they know the pitfalls, and they’ll be there keeping things running long after an engagement is over. In almost every case, technology and design teams develop strong partnerships with these public servants who’ve usually been trying to deliver services the best they can under major constraints and deserve enormous respect and admiration for their work.

The ambitious alternative to creating a California Digital Service is to lead the entire state workforce toward the principles and practices of delivery-driven government, in increments. Instead of only having an elite “special forces” team, democratize the transformation, and give everyone the opportunity to be those special forces. This is the path that is already well underway in California.

Amy Tong, California’s CIO

To be clear, even under this scenario, it would not be wise to mandate wholesale changes in practices across every department and function of the state overnight. The California Department of Technology (CDT), led by Amy Tong, has already partnered effectively with the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Health and Human Services Agency, the Department of Transportation, and others as a way to start small and learn, and the state is in a great position to choose a next set of projects in select agencies to roll out new practices and further learn what works. These are all opportunities to surface the statutory, legal, and policy barriers that make these practices hard, by the way, and tee them up to an administration that we believe will have the political will to address them.

This would still involve hiring some new people, and being creative about doing so. Many USDS-ers and others have pointed to the elite nature of the unit (as well as its commitment to diversity) as the reason for joining, and top talent may still need reasons to believe that they won’t get lost in the bureaucracy of government and to know that they’ll be working on high-impact projects. One idea is to create cohorts of new CDT hires from outside of government who may work with different agencies but who can support each other through the challenges of making change. But the goal would be to experiment with greater integration of tech and design talent into an already transforming CDT, so that CDT, and ultimately the agencies with which it partners, becomes the world-class organization it has the potential to be.

This is NOT to say that creating a separate digital service team as the tip of the spear couldn’t be a valuable component of a strategy of rapid, broad-based digital transformation. In Colorado, for instance, there is a groundswell of support for the creation of a Colorado Digital Service under Governor-elect Jared Polis. A number of former USDS staffers live in Colorado and form the base of a community willing and able to bring the framework and talent to the table, and conditions are ripe there for a unit like this to drive transformation in much the way it has at the federal level. This is also likely true of other states, where the creation of a digital service can catalyze change and rally the public, private, and social sectors together around common goals.

Our states were designed to be the laboratories of democracy. Let’s use them that way to find the best ways (and there will be more than one) to make state government work as it should for the American people, and by the American people. And let’s make sure each state learns from not only the experience of the federal government and the cities that have tried various approaches, but from each other state’s experiments. In the end, the right answer may be different for different states, but each is sure to find that the one thing they have in common is a need to break from the status quo.