Category Archives: U.S. Digital Service

New report on Digital Service Teams

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 7.09.15 AMIBM – The Center for the Business of Government has published my report titled “Digital Service Teams – Challenges and Recommendations for Government“.

The report is part of a larger research project in which I work on understand how different countries are using start-up teams inside of government to move their public administrations toward digital transformation. I am currently working on three other country cases (Estonia, Denmark, and the UK) and will add more cases as funding becomes available.

Here is the executive summary of the report:


Executive Summary

Digital service offices have emerged in governments around the world over the past six years as “tech surge teams” to respond to and repair urgent technology failures, or as an alternative structural approach to rethinking processes and implementation strategies in government digital transformation efforts.This report shares insights about three types of digital service teams:

  1. Centralized teams directly supporting national priorities, such as the U.S.Digital Service, or the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service
  2. Enterprise teams supporting innovation in IT acquisition and internal consultancy services, such as 18F, an office within the Technology Transformation Service at the General Services Administration (GSA) that states it is a “services company and product incubator” with the goal of providing digital development and consulting services for other federal government agencies or programs
  3. Agency-level teams, such as those pioneered in the U.S.: the Digital Service at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Defense

The insights provided in this report are based on a review of relevant literature and interviews with founding members, current directors, line managers of digital service teams, their counterparts in the offices of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the agency level, and private-sector representatives aiming to collaborate with these new teams.The interviews focused on the structure of the teams, the use of agile and human-centered design processes, changes to human resource (HR) processes to attract information technology (IT) talent from the private sector, the incentives for IT professionals to join the U.S.federal government, and the changes made to federal IT acquisition processes.

One of the catalysts that led to the creation of these various digital service units was the inability to deliver an operational HealthCare.gov website on time in late 2013, which was symptomatic of a broader federal challenge in delivering large-scale IT projects.A post-mortem assessment found that the government’s existing IT expertise did not reflect private-sector industry practices, and that there was a gap between the needs of program managers and the technical capacity available to implement large projects effectively.A key contributing factor was that over three-quarters of the current IT budget for the federal government is earmarked to maintain existing, outdated legacy IT systems, leaving little room to exploit the potential for adopting innovative, new technology approaches and capacities.

A near-term solution to this lack of technical capacity and innovation skills was the introduction of so-called “IT start-ups” within government, also known as “digital service teams.” These small teams typically operate outside existing agency IT organizational structures and recruit IT talent directly from the private sector.They are given a mandate to rapidly implement change initiatives using commercially-developed tools and processes such as human-centered design and agile innovation management techniques—which are standard practice in the private sector, but have been infrequently adopted in the public sector.

The report identifies six challenges that digital service teams face in their efforts to implement digital transformation projects in a government context:

  • Embracing an agile development approach
  • Attracting IT talent from the private sector
  • Maintaining and scaling a start-up culture in government
  • Improving the acquisition of innovative IT
  • Funding digital service teams
  • Addressing whether innovation should be “bought or built”

From these challenges, several recommendations emerge for agencies that are in the process of setting up their own digital service teams, or are considering doing so.These include:

  • Understanding that digital transformation in government is not a “software problem,” but requires a holistic and strategic approach
  • Using “outside-the-box” thinking to infuse innovation into acquisition strategies
  • Phasing-in the use of new cost models to support digital services “start-up” teams
  • Including non-technical government employees as part of digital services teams
  • Challenging perceptions that “innovation can’t happen here,” given existing regulatory and cultural constraints
  • Enlisting facilitative leaders to champion digital transformation
  • Promoting greater collaboration among digital service teams and agency IT stakeholders

In addition, the author recommends that policy makers take steps to ensure longer-term sustainability of digital transformation through the use of digital service teams.These steps include:

  • Aligning the priority of digital transformation with other mission-driven national and agency-level priorities
  • Addressing the legacy IT problems of the federal government
  • Scaling up digital service team activities where they demonstrate value
  • Expanding agencies’ authority to use innovative personnel tools to bring IT talent into government
  • Adopting a new approach towards third-party service providers that reduces procedural acquisition burdens in favor of demonstrated capacity to deliver results

Media coverage:

Reference:

Mergel, I. (2017): Digital Service Teams – Challenges and Recommendations for Government, IBM – The Center for the Business of Government, Using Technologies Series, Washington, DC.