Interview on global digital service teams in HuffingtonPost

I gave an interview to Marquis Cabrera which is now online on HuffingtonPost:

Dr. Mergel: You’ve had a most interesting academic career; the convergence of academia and industry (and tech!) in your published works is incredible! What made you decide to commission a report on global digital services?

We currently see all kinds of organizational arrangements emerge in government: innovation or policy labs, innovation offices, and digital service teams.

My goal with this report was to understand how the bureaucracy can absorb new organizational arrangements and approaches and scale them up in government. The report focuses mostly on 18F – a digital consultancy that provides services to clients at all levels of the U.S. government. I also included a brief overview of similar international initiatives, like the UK’s Government Digital Service that served as the role model for 18F’s creation.

In your report, you mentioned global government digital service consultancies and agencies; 18F, GDS, and DTO. To level set with our readers, what are these organizations? What factors (specific or high-level) in aggregate lead to the rise of these organization types? And, how have they had a profound influence on society?

The digital service teams I study have in common that they are usually located outside the formal hierarchy, equipped with their own budget to hire skills that are not available in government, and their mode of operation focuses on experiments, agile innovation approaches, and user-centric design.

These teams have similar goals: to make government more agile, adaptive, and responsive to unforeseen threats or complex tasks that cannot be tackled in the rather static environment of government. Especially digital service teams were created to either clean up some major failures of black swan IT projects – that have massively failed or run over budget and time – or to tackle encrusted structures, archaic processes, and legacy systems that are not suited for some of the current tasks.

At this point, we cannot make any statements about their global impact on society as a whole. But what we can see is that they have a profound impact on how government and its stakeholders think about digital service delivery. So far, most services are designed based on the internal logic of government. If you go to any government website, you have to first understand how government is internally organized, then identify the department that is most likely responsible for the service you are looking for, and then you hope you will be able to access the service you need online. Digital services are rarely designed with the user in mind and what we see digital service teams do is to break up this logic and allow government to open up, include their stakeholders in the design and delivery process design, simplify and adjust their operations, and sometimes even automate processes.

If you had to provide a mini taxonomy, who are the key people driving and influencing the adoption of digital services among global governments?

So there is quite a bit of myth and misunderstandings about the kind of people who are joining these teams, because some of the digital service teams are trying to provide an organizational culture that is more aligned with a start-up culture to attract the right talent– fail, fail, fast attitude, relaxed clothing, open doors, etc. It is certainly the case that the so-called “Internet generation” is hired to join government for short-term assignments. In the UK government, Mike Bracken has for example hired what the bureaucrats then dismissively called “kids in shorts”. The idea is to bring in people with the right skills to redesign services, but they don’t necessarily have deep public administration knowledge and therefore might clash with the existing culture in government.

However, we have done a study on the types of people and their motives to join government digital service teams and we found that while there are some people who are joining from the private and non-profit sector, there are also many who join from other levels of government. They see 18F or other digital service teams as a way to bring fundamental change to government and innovate from the inside. They provide their skills that are also in high demand in other sectors to push digital transformation projects forward. They bring a new lens to government: why can’t we design services that citizens can actually use, track, and trust in the same way they use social media or online shopping platforms?

Since we want readers to read your study, out of your six purported challenges, which are the top two challenges? And, what are your recommendations do you have for mitigating those challenges?

I believe that changing the internal culture of government toward an innovation culture that is open to new approaches is the most challenging part for any bureaucracy. Civil servants are not trained to take risks, instead they are trained and incentivized to follow rules and regulations. For very good reasons obviously, but it is also important to review if the current practices are still serving the citizens and supporting the mission of each government organization. These review processes are not institutionalized and performance of government outputs and outcomes are rarely measured in a comparative manner. Initiating and sustaining change and innovation is therefore a huge challenge for government – and especially for those innovation champions who are tasked with these types of change initiatives.

The other major challenge is the change of acquisition practices. We are coming out of what academics call the New Public Management era, where government was supposed to be run like a business. But major failures of this concept have shown that government is left with the bare minimum and especially when it comes to IT acquisition, we notice that there are not enough skills and knowledge to prepare requests for proposals. The result is that the extend of services and the needs on how to design services are no longer aligned with the actual expected results. What digital service teams are therefore trying to do is to change the way that government buys technology or services. This is a major issue because stakeholders, such as large external service providers, are impacted by these decisions. As I showed in some of the quotes in my report, there is major push back from professional service organizations who take issue with the way these changes were initiated and believe that government should focus on its core mission and leave innovation up to the private sector.

What political factors, if any, contribute to the success of the global digital service teams?

In my interviews with policy makers, implementers, and external service providers, it became clear that you need some kind of tipping point, like the major failure of the launch of HealthCare.gov in the U.S., or the economic crisis in the UK. These are triggers that provide the political climate to allow policy makers to make radical suggestions, release budgets for the creation of digital service teams, and allow them to completely rethink government operations with an (almost) outsider’s point of view.

However, as we have seen in both countries, political leadership is crucial. These units need the political ‘air cover’ to maintain the freedom to push forward – against all odds. As soon as political leadership changes, these units are on the chopping block, especially if they are not institutionalized and embedded in a larger departmental context and have shown success and performance changes.

– Moreover, in your opinion, will 18F survive a Trump administration now that it has been re-organized under the Federal Acquisition Services Commissioner and how will DTO survive without Paul Shelter, who pioneered the UK’s government digital services? Now that GDS has new leadership, how will it evolve and / or change?

These developments are difficult to predict, especially given that the current U.S. administration has put gag orders on civil servants who were previously very open to share their practices, decision making, and strategies under the Obama administration. It seems however, that Jared Kushner’s Office of American Innovation reflects some of the ideas that were already implemented as part of USDS and 18F.

One of the most fascinating things I read in your report was country-as-a-service? Recently, I have been touting Tim O’Reilly’s Government-as-a-Platform, Open Government as a Platform, and Every-thing-as-a-service, but I had never thought of country-as-a-service. What is it? And, where did it originate? What countries have implemented?

Yes, Country as a Service (CaaS) is a concept that the Estonian government has created: a holistic approach to transform all administrative acts into digital services. Estonians can, for example, submit their tax returns via a confirmation on their mobile phone. The Estonian government uses several principles to push the boundaries of digital transformation: the once-only principle as part of their shared data infrastructure XRoad allows citizens to enter their data once and then share it with other government agencies. Citizens keep full control of who has access to their data and are informed every time someone tries to access their data. There is full political support across administrations and party lines to brand digitization as a competitive success factor to attract talent and sell services to other countries (recently Finland has bought XRoad and is developing it further).

Estonia has pushed the boundaries of digital service delivery beyond its own borders and offers an eResidency program through which international entrepreneurs become ‘quasi citizens’ and can easily set up their online business in Estonia.

We have also identified that there is close collaboration between the private and the public sector. As an example, the banks were influential in developing, issuing and rolling out initial versions of the digital ID – a now universal access card for all digital services in the private and public sector. They also took on the role of educating and informing citizens in distributed kiosks and education programs to bring everyone across all ages into the digital age.

Recently, I co-authored a report on the global workforce challenges governments face. I also recently interviewed a student entrepreneur at Harvard, who started the Civic Digital Fellowship, for he’s trying to trying to help augment government technical and design talent deficits, like the Congressional and Presidential Innovation Fellowships. In your professional opinion and based on your research, do digital services provide a mechanism for recruitment of more millennials into the government workforce, which is necessary due to the baby boomers retiring soon?

What I have seen across all digital transformation cases I studied in the US over the last decade is that there are two types of generations that are on board with the efforts: First, the Internet generation that you mentioned in your report. They come in with knowledge and skills that are oftentimes lacking in government, as well as a clear vision of how things can be simplified – instead of adding to the existing legacy systems. Second, I noticed that especially the baby boomers – who are about to retire – are excited to find opportunities to ‘download’ their knowledge into tools such as social intranets. They also have the broad overview of what works and what doesn’t across administrations and are willing to improve the system. The ‘problem group’ are the middle-aged civil servants for whom retraining seems to be a major challenge.

I think we need programs like the Presidential Management Fellowship or the Presidential Innovation Fellowship to provide incentives for people to join government – even if it might just be on a temporary basis. But we need to build a knowledge network of those who are willing to help innovate government operations.

To this end: If you were to commission a report to explore an insight gleaned from your recent digital services report, what would you want to explore?

For governments it is crucial not to reinvent the wheel over and over again by spending tax payers’ money on similar services that were already invented in another corner of the system. We need to better understand how innovations can be replicated and scaled up, and we need to better understand how government culture can be changed to make these innovations happen. It is crucial to learn from other countries, that might not be on the immediate radar screen of the U.S. universe. Instead, look at studies that show the degree of digital transformation or the percentage of government services delivered online. I like to see more reports that focus on issues and how they were successfully tackled internationally – instead of light house projects that I consider navel gazing projects, which might disappear after the next election. I can envision reports about countries like Estonia or Denmark for example and how they were able to create a collaborative innovation culture.

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About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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