Delivering digital services

How governments deliver digital services that meet user needs, on time and on budget.

ALPHA: The information on this page is an early draft. We'll update it regularly as we learn.

Please send feedback to Dan Hon at dan@codeforamerica.org.

What works

One of the most successful improvements of how technology is used and bought in government has been the work done by the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service (GDS) since 2001. GDS’ work inspired the creation of the United States Digital Service (USDS) and 18f in America and New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs.

This guide is a short overview of how successful government technology is being bought and delivered in 2015.

1. Start with user needs

Technology in government works when it delivers what its users need, not what government thinks its users need. Real and tested user needs help discover what’s needed to deliver a successful service. Technology that follows requirements drawn up without understanding users or in response to policy usually fails.

Build user research skills

Starting with user needs means identifying and thinking about real users and what they need - whether those users are residents, citizens or government staff. Successful governments do their own user research to understand what their users really need - whether it’s claiming social service benefits, licensing a childcare facility or starting a new business. These successful governments have true user research capability and use it to do research, not testing. Testing is about checking needs and approaches, not finding them.

Deliver services, not solutions

Bad government technology projects can usually be described as policy-led searches for complete solutions. Instead, governments have a higher chance of successfully delivering technology when leadership focuses on delivering a service to users instead of a solution that will solve a problem, no matter how detailed the description of the problem.

2. Let digital leaders lead

Digital Directors

Strong digital executive leadership is needed for technology to work. Governments that have succeeded have appointed Digital Directors with absolute authority over delivering digital services with spend and budget controls. To lead change, these directors are fully supported by, and part of, the executive.

Simpler governance

Digital leadership also needs simpler governance. In the UK, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer has simplified existing boards, committees and relationships into four areas: Mission IT, Digital Public Services, Infrastructure and Shared Services to re-focus on outcomes and escape process loops.

Product owners with authority

Finally, internal teams succeed when they have ownership of the services they oversee.

The USDS recommends that government services have a single Product Owner with the authority to make product, business and technical decisions, and ultimate accountability; GDS calls product owners Service Managers, who work throughout central government, departments and agencies, each with the authority to manage and direct the services they’re responsible for.

3. Use the right methods at the right time

Successful governments aren’t using long, large IT contracts and they don’t use a single approach when delivering services. Instead, they deliver digital services using the right methods for the work that needs to be done. These governments:

  • build or commission technology;
  • rent products; and
  • use commodities and utilities.

These governments recognize that digital service delivery is a normal part of 21st century government and use these methods to keep ownership and control of their users’ experience.

The Wardley map below shows how a large project has been broken up into contracts that group components by their evolution. Five contracts cover items that are in the product/rental and commodity/utility stage, and four individual contracts cover items that are newer and are best served by custom-building. Understanding which parts of a digital service are at different levels of maturity means being able to choose the right contract for the right component, instead of using a single vendor, one-size-fits-all contract.

A Wardley map showing the contract structure of a large project. Five medium-sized contracts cover product/rental commodity/utility items. Four smaller contracts each include one custom built or genesis item.

A Wardley map showing the contract structure of a large project. Five medium-sized contracts cover product/rental commodity/utility items. Four smaller contracts each include one custom built or genesis item.

Build or commission: in-house, agile and iterative

Where problems are not clearly defined and new user-centered services (or replacements for legacy services) are being delivered, an in-house agile or iterative, build or commission model helps deliver working software into the hands of users quickly and frequently with the capacity to make repeated adjustments in response to feedback.

Agile and iterative development is best-suited to such early stages where user needs are being continually researched and refined.

Rent established commercial off-the-shelf products

Where there are more mature products available like payment services that must “just work”, governments can take advantage of economy of scale by using off-the-shelf products. It doesn’t make sense for governments to replicate accepting payments: government should concentrate on what only government can do. Renting these types of commercial off-the-shelf products from specialists allows governments to use lean methods of management to improve efficiency and performance.

Use commodities and utilities

Finally, where products and services are at their most mature and innovation is not required (or, even undesirable), they can be treated like commodities and utilities, like consumables, water and power and more recently cloud hosting. In these cases, government can use techniques like Six Sigma to ensure quality.

18f has written blog posts about open source software that has reached utility/commodity status and avoiding the waterfall process when moving a service to the cloud.

Leaders and people who make purchasing decisions must understand the difference between these three methods and where they are most appropriate. Digital services that work are being delivered by understanding when and where in a service to use agile, lean and six sigma techniques and when and what to build, rent or buy.

Alex Holmes, Deputy Director and Chief of Staff of the UK government’s Office of the CTO, has written a blog post explaining the benefits of “multi-sourcing”. The UK government relies on internal teams understanding how services will be delivered. These internal teams are accountable and responsible for the architecture of their services. Then, they:

  • own, design and implement whole services; or
  • own, design and implement whole services and work with a service integrator and manager for day-to-day running.

4. Build internal teams to own services

In America, the USDS recommends bringing in experienced teams; in the UK, these teams are called multidisciplinary teams.

These teams have all the understanding and ability they need to design, own and implement user-centered, iteratively developed services. Not all of these team members are government staff - successful digital services are delivered in this way by using vendors and teams outside government, too. But government must be able to control and understand the service on its own.

5. Treat digital as government’s job

All of these best practices add up. Government leaders must accept that digital is how government works in the 21st century. The internet and cheap computing - that keeps getting cheaper - have massively changed the world and society over the past twenty five years.

Because of this, government cannot treat “digital” as something separate. It is not something that can be bought, installed or specified as a solution or a service. Responsibility for digital delivery can’t be the job of one person, team or department. It must be something that government at all levels understands and can deliver.

Denver, Colorado’s Peak Academy is performing part of this transformation by training city employees in “lean” management principles that will help them reduce waste.

In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions embarked on a Digital Academy program to digitally transform and train its entire organization - an ambitious program for a department that serves 22 million users.

This is nothing short of digital transformation of government, of improving the way government delivers its services to its users by putting digital delivery at the center.


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