Draft 1: Getting Inside the Walls

This is an assignment for a class I’m taking about“digital service teams,” such as the US Digital Service. The prompt is: “What do you think of the use of digital service teams in government? Are they effective? If so, how so. If not, what would you suggest instead?” I title this as “draft 1,” because I believe the ideas here can be improved through further iterations — and I don’t consider myself finished with the thinking on this issue.

Digital service teams hold great promise for transforming the relationship between citizens and government, ultimately resulting in a better quality of life for all. The end-game here is better outcomes for citizens, and the question is how well digital service teams bring us toward that goal.

First though, almost unnecessarily, I want to establish that there is opportunity, and in fact urgent need, for improvement in the way government works. Governments today are not meeting outcomes to the best of their ability, and this leaves many people who are not helped and dollars that are misspent. More than 40 million Americans live below the poverty line. The United States spends $8 Billion dollars per year on early education for low-income children through Head Start, and we don’t know nearly enough about how well it works. There are plenty of opportunities for improvement in government.

One simple recipe for achieving these changes in the way government works involves 1) creating impetus to change and 2) deploying tactics for change. There are a handful sources of impetus — leadership of a newly elected official or pressure from a “crisis,” such as financial recession or glaring failure, are two of the most prominent. Another more subtle impetus, related to the first two, is increased expectations of citizens. For tactics to improve the way government works, there are many options to choose from. Two of the most prominent tactics include using data and evidence to make decisions and refocusing around user needs. There are many iterations of these and other tactics, sometimes their boundaries blur.

Digital service teams represent a compelling package of tactics for improving government services. Looking across the case studies we’ve consider in class and their various projects (e.g., Estonia, USDS), it’s apparent that digital service teams and are valuable in improving the work of government. And their work is increasingly important, in light of the fact that “software is eating the world.”

I worry though that digital services fall short on ability to reach deep into core of where change is required. Imagine a fortress, surrounded by concentric walls. The closer to the center of the walls, the easier it is to pull the levers of change for improving government services. These walls have been built up over time, and they are barriers to change. The closer to the center of the walls, the harder it is to surmount them. Here, I’ll name four walls (in what is certainly an incomplete list) and offer some reflections on how well digital services teams overcome them. In order of increasing impenetrability, the walls are: 1) business processes, 2) culture, 3) funding allocations, and 4) legal structures. Digital service teams have shown highly promising gains on 1, business processes, and 2, culture. They have also dug into the depths of 3, funding allocations. They have run up against wall 4, legal structures, though have done well in highlighting places where change by other means is needed. And furthermore, I haven’t seen any reforms, other than the traditional legislative process, that are particularly effective at reaching into the legal structures wall on a short timeline.

One way to think of digital service teams is as a trojan horse for getting inside the walls (or even the very first wall, of getting anyone to pay attention to you in the first place). And there are other trojan horses out there, knocking at the gates. One example is the work that falls under the heading of “pay for success,” which is focused on reforming social service contracting to be more innovative and performance-driven. There are also plenty of people pushing other approaches. For example, Results for America, a think tank and intermediary organization, seeks to improve government’s ability to work with data and evidence. Among these trojan horses, I believe digital services teams represent the most comprehensive set of tactics and also the best means for breaking through (or sneaking through) a handful of the walls. I recognize that fully justifying this position would represent a much larger undertaking than is possible in this blog post.

So, if this is true, what does it mean? Like any shiny thing (or oversized wooden horse), digital service teams have the potential to distract or even elicit misuse. So we should be cautious of people who talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. More importantly though, my conclusions here suggest allegiances with those working on other tactics or with other ways of getting inside the walls. For example, I believe conversations between people working on digital services and pay for success contracts could yield some mutually beneficial insights. Even more substantively, I wonder how digital service teams can develop partnerships with the authors and interpreters of legislation and laws to ensure that those levels of government are also changing alongside the technology and business processes. The work of crafting a better government cannot be done by technologists alone.