Part 1: An Introduction to the Inaugural Digital Services Convening at HKS

[Report] The 2018 State of Digital Transformation

On June 12–13, 2018, digital HKS welcomed public sector digital services teams from around the world to share stories of success, talk about lessons learned, and discuss the challenges they face in transforming government. The teams convened all agreed on North Star goals of building platform services and putting users at the center; what remains much more difficult is identifying how teams in very different political and technology contexts should think about how to reach that end-state. Over the next few weeks, digital HKS will share best practices we gleaned from this group, and we’ll also work to start a broader conversation for digital services groups around the world about what comes next.

photo courtesy of Benson Chan Photography

We will dive into one of the big questions that frustrates digital services teams during development and strategy process: an assessment of maturity and effectiveness. The gathered teams represent the full spectrum of modern digital services, from teams that are just starting to score wins in new digital tools and upgraded services, to those that have built up full-stack platform tools that are transforming the way government and citizens interact. Teams agreed that there are three clear groupings in digital services groups: teams that are just getting started and are focused on quick wins and building relationships; teams that have built partnerships and achieved successes that enable larger and more impactful projects; and teams that have built a true platform for creating digital services and are pushing the envelope of innovation. We’ll propose a model and framework to help teams understand where they stand currently, and define which concrete steps will move them up the ladder.

In a series of posts, we’ll then share reflections from participants as well as concrete examples of what teams have learned in leadership development, delivery, governance, and succession. These lessons will reflect the smartest advice we heard from practitioners about their experience and the smart approaches they’ve learned over time. We’ll also share common pitfalls and struggles that teams faced along the way — and hopefully provide digital services groups with a better roadmap for long-term sustainability and success.

We don’t have all the answers, but we are excited to begin a more robust conversation around the world between digital services teams, many of whom have so much to share with one another, but frequently don’t have a chance to engage in frank discussions. We also don’t consider this effort a one-off toolkit or statement, but rather the start of a more productive conversation around the world about how we move digital services teams toward platform enablement, and how we turn the much larger and more complex ship of state toward a more user-centered, tech-smart approach.

These insights reflect the shared contributions of digital services teams from the governments of Argentina, Estonia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Peru, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The conversation followed Chatham House Rules (i.e., comments are not attributed to an individual), and we wish to express our gratitude to the whole group for their candid and thoughtful insights. Also in attendance were former White House Deputy CTO Jen Pahlka from Code for America, as well as digital HKS fellows Kathy Pham and Richard Pope. We want to give special thanks to Public Digital for helping to organize this event.

This piece was written by David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Ben McGuire, a Harvard Kennedy School student MPP ‘19.