Introduction to Levers for Digital Service Groups

Lauren Lombardo
Feb 4 · 7 min read

Authors: David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Tom Loosemore, Partner, Public Digital; Lauren Lombardo, Master in Public Policy 2021, Harvard Kennedy School

A recurring question from every Digital Services Convening is how to help digital service groups effect change. While success on individual projects is important, scaled impact through shifting practices and behaviors across the government is the bigger goal. This paper seeks to share learnings garnered through interviews, surveys, and the discussion at the 2020 convening regarding the different levers digital teams use (or aspire to use) to push change across the enterprise.

To explore, identify, and ultimately define how digital service groups use levers, we socialized a preliminary list of levers for digital service groups before the convening. This list was updated as we received feedback from attendees about which levers they have and which they would like to possess. We then used this list (reproduced below) to discuss how levers can be earned and leveraged, as well as the risks of using them.

We adopt the word “lever” because it traditionally refers to as a simple machine that uses force to provide leverage. Professional schools, consulting firms, and strategists have adopted this mechanical term to refer to business initiatives, tools, or processes that force change. Two keywords from the definition — force and leverage — are particularly important.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Force means a lever should have some ability to enact change. One example could be modeling behavior to induce others across the enterprise to voluntarily comply with a new set of practices. Another would be policies or laws that mandate that others shift their behaviors or practices. Leverage, on the other hand, is about the scope of change. A lever should effect change across the enterprise. While a lever may help a specific project, it is a tool built not for a single project or initiative, but, rather, for use at the systems level.

List of Levers for Digital Service Groups

This is a working list, designed to better understand which levers digital service groups can use to influence their organizations.

Levers as a Spectrum

In our discussions with digital service groups, two salient points about levers emerged. The first is that levers are not all created equal. Some induce or attract voluntary compliance, while others are more heavy-handed and, at least in theory, mandate compliance. Voluntary and mandatory compliance can be thought of as the two ends of a spectrum.

Figure 3.1: Spectrum of Levers for Digital Service Groups

Second, one might infer that teams should want to seek out levers on the mandatory end of the spectrum, as this allows one to compel the enterprise to change practices. But the practitioners we spoke to painted a more complicated picture. Many government mandates are effectively ignored, while some voluntary norms are so universally adhered to that they achieve deep and lasting impact. As the expression goes, “culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Moving Between Voluntary and Mandatory

Some levers are static — they can only be used in a voluntary or mandatory way. Others can move from one end of the spectrum (or back) over time.

Communications power is an example of a static lever; it can only be used in a voluntary way. It’s a powerful lever: Organizations with communications power can push the media to ask certain questions or help build public and political support for an issue. Further, many digital service groups’ ability to “work in the open,” share alpha and beta versions of their projects, and talk openly of successes and struggles has helped foster communities of supporters across the government and the public at large. This support can be powerful, but it cannot be used to compel others to behave a certain way.

In contrast, other levers can transition. Let us return to the GOV.UK story discussed in the text box above. The United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service (GDS) initially chose to exert domain control as a voluntary, not mandatory, lever, to induce ministries to move services onto Gov.UK. GDS made this choice because, at the time, it aligned best with their political context and leadership style. However, over time, asserting domain control more formally — as a mandatory lever — became key to compelling holdouts to migrate their services onto the domain.

The same story can be told about service assessments. Often these start off as a voluntary lever — a way for a team to helpfully advise. However, over time best practices from these assessments may become codified and ultimately form the basis of a policy or formal process that projects must clear before being approved.

Gaining Levers

There are two ways in which digital service groups tell us they acquire levers. Some are capabilities the team builds itself without relying on powerful stakeholders or formal authorities. This might be establishing a voluntary standard, having the “cool factor,” or working in the open to gain communications power. Other levers must be granted through legislative action or by an executive sponsor. Examples of these include IT spend control (the ability to veto or stop projects), or a “magic wand” (the ability to forgo adhering to rules).

The most common way to get levers from outside the team is to cash in earned political capital. As outlined in the story about GDS, the team did this by generating wins up front. At the same time that GDS was working to gain enough political capital to be given the lever of domain control, it built up other levers independently. GDS could control its public profile and how it built its technological capabilities. By carefully crafting relationships with the media and hiring smart, capable people, GDS created its own communications power and technical capacity levers. This gave the group a reputation as trusted technologists and designers that was magnified through its international media connections.

Key Takeaways

It’s essential to understand how each option for gaining levers works and how each applies to a given context. A digital service can build levers, particularly voluntary ones, by hiring the right people, establishing the right relationships, and sharing its work in the right places. However, other levers must be granted by an authority. Successful teams should collect a combination of both types, meaning they must simultaneously build levers and earn political capital that can be traded in for levers from outside authorities.

A group should not assume that mandatory levers are the eventual goal. The ability to influence decision-making through voluntary levers can be a powerful tool. Voluntary levers allow groups to change culture, set expectations, and reward good behavior. Further, too many mandatory levers — especially unpopular ones — can foster resentment or make the group a political target. Instead of only aiming for mandatory levers, a group should pursue the combination of levers needed to execute its transformation strategy.

Equally important to selecting the right levers is making sure that they are used effectively. Knowing when to use a power and when not to use it is primarily a matter of instinct. Overusing a lever can create resentment, but underusing it can cause other departments to ignore the group’s power. This is particularly true for unpopular levers, as these are the ones that can spark the most defiance. These levers need to be used, and they need to be used early so that expectations are set about how the group will exercise that power if needed.

At GDS, the most unpopular lever was IT spend control. As it began to use this lever, GDS faced pushback from departments that were upset about this oversight. However, GDS had solidified its control over this lever and learned how to use it swiftly and effectively to change departments’ behaviors. Specifically, GDS used IT spend control alongside complementary voluntary levers, such as communications power. By using the media to highlight the savings its work was creating, GDS undercut some of the pushback against its use of this unpopular lever. Because GDS didn’t hide its unpopular levers, it could use them to catalyze long-term change.

GDS used each of its levers to accumulate even more power over time. The team built communications power and technical capacity and then used these levers to generate political capital. GDS traded in this political capital for domain control, which in turn generated more capital due to the success of GOV.UK. The website’s success allowed GDS to get the additional levers of IT spend control and service standard, each of which led to more achievements and allowed for further accumulation of power and support.

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