Public service as a service: how tech volunteers foster digital government in NYC

by Alexis Wichowski & Katherine Benjamin

We started with a hypothesis. During the COVID-19 crisis in New York City in the spring of 2020, we had seen how fast skilled technologists could help spin up digital solutions. Our hypothesis was this: we can replicate the efficiencies we saw during COVID-19 crisis response to cultivate rapid digital services projects without being in an actual crisis.

Some context: in the spring of 2020, New York City was the first American city to be inundated with COVID-19 cases. City officials scrambled to identify technology solutions that could support crisis response, especially as it related to personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies. Then U.S. Digital Response (USDR) stepped up. Volunteer technologists by the thousands had signed up with the newly created organization to help governments across the country manage their tech surge needs due to COVID — and New York City became one of USDR’s first partners. Working with expertly skilled technologists, thirteen agencies funneled their data into a PPE Dashboard MVP, built by USDR volunteers in less than three days. With it, we could see not only a birds-eye view of PPE inventory, but also anticipate demand. With smart application of technology, dedicated officials determined to share data, and some bureaucracy wrangling, the City got on top of the PPE crisis in its hour of greatest need.

Seeing how well technologists could deliver solutions in a crisis situation, we started wondering about the possibilities for delivering on critical needs during non-crisis moments. While we saw the speed with which solutions were being deployed during the spring of 2020, the process was far from perfect: we saw the swirl, the lack of clarity, and the bureaucratic stuff that slowed down velocity and potential for impact in a time when our City urgently needed every minute of expertise available. So we asked ourselves, “What if we — a small group of public servant technologists — ran out ahead of these projects to scope, de-risk, and create an optimized environment that was receptive to rapid innovation?” The opportunity was clear: we could force multiply our small team’s output by cultivating projects to enable volunteer teams of technologists to jump into projects and deliver significant progress from moment one.

We started with proven best-practice principles to define the parameters of our intervention: we knew value was only produced when work is released, so we knew we needed to produce value early and often. This meant delivering value in weeks, not months. We also knew we needed to work in the open so stakeholders could participate in defining the Work-in-Progress and ensure projects didn’t get stuck in endless rounds of government approvals. Finally, we knew that, like with a game of soccer — where it doesn’t matter if every player speaks the same language so long as they know the rules of the game — empowered agile teams of technologists who are otherwise complete strangers can quickly begin collaborating because they all use the same agile product management techniques. We figured that so long as we, the government teams, define the parameters and clearly communicate to technologists, these teams would know how to get a project to a win.

The final thing we knew was that the digital government community saw the same opportunities that we saw. In describing some sort of “structured Fellowship model” to our partners at U.S. Digital Response, they too recognized an opportunity to rapidly accelerate high-priority COVID-19 technology products, and that all of the above structures were consistent with how USDR was already designing surge engagements with government partners around the country. This is how the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows came to be.

NYC[x]IF Cohort 1

Based on the success of the partnership with U.S. Digital Response in the COVID-19 crisis in the spring of 2020, in the summer of 2020 the New York City Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (NYC CTO) and U.S. Digital Response (USDR) launched the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows (NYC[x]IF) program, bringing fourteen vetted volunteer technologists into government to partner with City agencies to tackle urgent needs: to fight hate crimes, lower language barriers, and drive digital equity. The Fellowship was an experiment to test our hypothesis. Our hope was that it would both create work products that gave immediate value to agencies as well as usher in culture change for a more digital and modern government.

The experiment worked; so well, in fact, that it won an award. Our two agency partners were thrilled, and countless others were curious: sixty-five officials from sixteen agencies — most of whom had only heard rumors of the Fellowship — showed up to the final demo to check out the Fellows’ work. It appeared that through tightly scoped time-bound sprints with highly skilled technologists, we could advance digital transformation in New York City government.

NYC[x]IF Cohort 2

What we didn’t anticipate, however, was how the Fellowship would transform the Innovation Fellows themselves. One of the unforeseen outcomes of the Fellowship is that it serves as a pipeline of technologists who became eager to join government technology teams. During our exit interviews, one Innovation Fellow who was new to civic tech work, reflected that the Fellowship “was amazing,” and what’s more, it was “easily one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever worked on.” Encouraged by the changes we saw in government and the impact the Fellowship had on the volunteers during the first cohort, we forged ahead to plan a second cohort, working with three new agency partners. This time, the stakes were higher: all three projects involved making changes to live services, not just greenfield (new) projects, or building out tightly controlled proofs of concepts.

NYC CTO scoped projects with three new agency partners — the Department of Small Business Services (SBS), the Department for the Aging (DFTA), and the Department of Finance (DOF) — and USDR recruited, vetted, and selected fifteen Innovation Fellows for what would be a slightly longer sprint — 10 weeks — to allow for more time with onboarding and documentation.

The experience exceeded our expectations. In addition to transforming live government digital services — including one of the most heavily trafficked websites in City government, the Department of Finance’s CityPay site, which takes in over $21 billion each year — the volunteer technologists were themselves transformed.

An Innovation Fellow serving as a project manager remarked:

“At a time when the institutions of our government were literally under attack, it was heartening to be able to log on and see a bunch of people undeterred in their commitment to using collective action and pluralistic government to make people’s lives better, especially for a population (older adults) who are often overlooked by other systems.”

A software engineer reflected:

“The NYC[x] Fellowship team from USDR and the NYC Mayor’s Office of the CTO put so much work and heart into the fellowship and make it truly an incredible experience. You get to meet the brilliant, passionate, and kind folks who work on digital government in New York City, and build community within your cohort of fellows. Beyond the project your team focuses on, there are so many great opportunities to learn about technology and government and gain insight into the public sector that are really invaluable.”

Another shared:

“The people! As someone looking to gain more experience in the public and non-profit sectors, it has been so inspiring to meet others who are so passionate about civic tech.”

NYC[x]IF’s Future

With six projects completed at a standard that exceeded all expectations and twenty-nine NYC[x]IF alums finished with their tours of duty in New York City government, we feel confident that the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows program has proven our hypothesis: working together, we can create digital products with immediate value to our agency partners and catalyze an appetite for culture change toward digital government practices among NYC officials. We look forward to continuing the Fellowship for many more cohorts, planting deep roots for the digital government movement to flourish in New York City now and in the future.

To learn more about the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows program, visit on.nyc.gov/nycxif. To volunteer with U.S. Digital Response, visit usdigitalresponse.org.

Alexis Wichowski is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Inclusive Innovation and Katherine Benjamin is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Digital Services in the City of New York. They co-founded the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows program.

Learn more about NYC[x] Innovation Fellows program in this special report, “NYC[x] Innovation Fellows: Catalyzing Digital-Era Transformation Using a 10-Week Sprint” from the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University.

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U.S. Digital Response

U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.