Organize government for digital services

Organizational design for delivering successful change through technology.

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.

1. Appoint qualified digital leadership

Governments should appoint qualified leaders who are responsible for strategic, transformative digital leadership. This leadership has two roles and is responsible for figuring out which areas of technology can be commoditized and which need customized services.

Digital services director

Digital services directors should have absolute authority over delivering digital services, including spend and budget controls. To lead change, these directors are fully supported by, and part of, the executive or board.

Digital services directors should have the power to put together multidisciplinary project teams who have experience of delivering modern digital services. These teams should own and control the iterative development of services delivered by the department. If public digital services rely on internal technology systems, a service manager, reporting to the digital service director, should have accountability and decision-making authority for the entire service.

Chief technology officer

Chief technology officers provide department-specific technology to support digital service delivery and internal users. They should also be responsible for moving departments toward common or commodity technology platforms.

Governments should:

  • appoint a board or executive level digital services director with absolute authority over delivering digital services, including spend and budget controls
  • appoint a chief technology officer to support digital service delivery, internal users and moving to commodity or common technology platforms

2. Bring ownership and control back to departments

Treating technology as a solution to be bought has led to centralized IT project management and contracting. In turn, this leads to departments responsible for services losing understanding, ownership and control of their digital services.

Separate, external IT project management departments that are wholly responsible for digital services and delivery stops departments effectively delivering their services.

Departments don’t succeed when they must work in client relationships where they depend on an external supplier (like an IT project management department), who then contract with vendors. In the United Kingdom, the central Government Digital Service works alongside and supports departments who are also building their own digital capability.

Departments should make use of central technology leadership for commodities, utilities and standards across government. This means departments must have leadership who can decide how their services can best meet user needs using custom and commodity technology.

Governments cannot govern well in the 21st century if it lacks the knowledge and skills to deliver digital services based on modern technology.

Governments should:

  • bring the responsibility of designing, delivering and managing digital services back to departments if it has been removed
  • make sure that departments have staff who are able to design, deliver and manage owned and operated digital services

3. Build service teams

Governments should build internal service teams who own and control the iterative development of digital services. 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 this way by using vendors, too. But the key is that government must be in control, not a vendor.

For example, from the U.S. Digital Service:

  • members of the team must have experience building popular, high-traffic digital services
  • members of the team must have experience designing mobile and web applications
  • members of the team have experience with modern development and operations (DevOps) techniques like continuous integration and continuous deployment
  • members of the team have experience securing digital services

Bring in experienced teams - U.S. Digital Service

Experience from the UK suggests a core team made of:

  • a product owner
  • a delivery manager / project manager
  • a technical lead
  • one or more designers
  • one or more user researchers
  • one or more developers
  • one or more content designers
  • the support of a technical architect
  • the support of web operations expertise

The team - GDS Service Manual

4. Simplify governance

Government technology projects usually lack clear and simple governance. It’s normal for large projects to have three levels of governance, like an executive board, a project governance committee and a project management committee and for each level to make decisions by consensus or agreement.

While there are good reasons for requiring consensus, we’re not persuaded that the way government technology projects are governed results in effective services that meet their users’ needs.

Governments should:

  • appoint digital service directors with clear responsibility for delivering digital services
  • simplify governance into areas like: mission IT, digital public services, infrastructure and shared services
  • appoint product or service managers with the authority to make product, business and technical decisions, and ultimate accountability for their services

5. Focus on user needs

Many technology procurement decisions are made by selecting solutions or vendors who offer something like “best value”. This doesn’t lead to success. A technology solution that is bought because it offers the “best value” is not necessarily one that will deliver working services into the hands of government and public users as quickly as possible and then iterating on those services.

The value of technology is in how it can help government better meet users’ needs as well as save money for the taxpayer. That will only happen if government focusses on its users’ needs.

Governments should:

  • change decisions about “best value” to making sure that user needs are identified, met and then iterated on to deliver services that are simpler, clearer and faster to use.

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