Co-hosting the third annual Digital Services Convening with the Harvard Kennedy School

Public Digital + Harvard

Last week Public Digital and the Harvard Kennedy School co-hosted the annual Digital Services Convening – a 3-day event with talks and panel discussions on the progress – and particularly the challenges faced – by digital teams in the public sector from around the world. This is the third consecutive year we’ve run it. You can read about the 2019 event here and the 2018 event here.

At 2020’s convening we welcomed representatives from more than 40 governments and around 90 people turned out for each of the 8 sessions. Attendees came from very diverse roles and included Ministers of State for Digital, Government Chief Digital Officers, Chief Technology Officers, senior policy advisors for digital, user experience designers, and product managers. Many of the attendees represented teams that already have good momentum – and buy-in – for digital transformation in their country, whereas others were just starting out.

In 2018 and 2019 many people in digital government across the world went to Boston to attend – this year of course, everyone is remote.

The aim? Collaboration

In Mike’s opening session he pinned down the purpose: collaboration and support.

“I used to run the UK Government Digital Service. I remember having no other teams to talk to about all the mistakes I was making,” he said. “Working in digital governments across the world should never be a competition – always a collaboration.”

Naturally, coronavirus and governments’ digital responses were the prominent theme this year. David Eaves acknowledged that “teams went into the crisis with the digital team they had, not necessarily the digital team they wanted.” And that, the event is, “not a place to show off, rather a place to share struggles.”

Grouping talks

We split the presentations and discussions loosely into 3 over-arching topics:

  • Day 1: NOW – what we’re learning from digital teams’ responses to coronavirus
  • Day 2: LATER – what are the long-term opportunities over the next 3 to 5 years?
  • Day 3: NEXT – what should our priorities be over the next 6 to 12 months?

The same big themes resonated across borders. For example:

  • frustration with budgets and technology being beholden to big IT vendors and system integrators
  • the importance of cross-government collaboration, through the exchange of best practices or code sharing
  • the challenges that come with moving from delivering a few digital services to large-scale public sector reform
  • the key role of talent management and development, and how capability frameworks can help
  • the challenges of working in an agile way when traditional government finance, budgeting, and procurement processes are don’t lend themselves well to it
  • how to make the case for investment to politicians, finance ministers, and donors – especially funding for teams, not projects

Honesty, humility, respect and compassion

Every session ended with a chat box full of questions, encouragement and often congratulations. We divided people into Zoom breakout rooms between sessions to try and replicate the smaller group conversations that naturally take place at in-person events.

We’re hoping many of these conversations will continue and develop into lasting, supportive relationships between teams and countries.

We’ll be writing more on the convening over the coming days, and the Harvard team is working on write-ups of the major themes and takeaways from each session. Watch this space!

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