We co-hosted our third annual Digital Services Convening with the Harvard Kennedy School this June. We heard from around 20 inspiring speakers from across the globe on challenges and best practices when it comes to government digital transformation.
It’s time for me to reflect on the 4 main takeaways from this unique collaborative forum.
1. There is more than one solution for developing digital talent
Various sessions during the convening broached the subject of talent. What stands out for me is that although all digital service teams agree they share similar challenges, there is not one single solution which fits all contexts when it comes to recruiting and developing talent.
In some countries, the pool of digital expertise is not broad enough to allow governments to recruit locally. In these cases, we heard that appealing to members of the diaspora to return, or working with the private sector can be helpful, especially when a government digital service unit is new and needs quick wins to secure a political mandate.
After the digital service units launch their first services, and once these services start getting traction with citizens, units can start setting up stronger relationships with the local ecosystem. I realised how key this can be as local talents usually have a better understanding of the specificities of their country, and the needs of citizens. Insourcing talents is also very often less costly than hiring contractors.
On the other hand, bringing external talents for a limited period of time in a digital service team can boost knowledge transfer across countries or locally between organisations or teams. We heard of several successful internships and visiting schemes such as the 1-year Ontario Internship Program and the 2-year traineeship in IT, Security and Data Science in the Netherlands. The US Digital Service tours of duty, the US Presidential Innovation fellows and the Etalab programme are also interesting ones.
2. It’s time to ask for more investment
The coronavirus crisis made it clear to many governments that they lack internal digital capacity, and how important digital is to delivering public services quickly and efficiently.
As Malcolm Turnbull, former Prime Minister of Australia, reminded us in a video interview he filmed for the convening, “no crisis should go to waste”. We heard from many digital teams who felt it was the right time to make the case for additional funding. I doubt it will be easy as many governments are facing severe budget deficits, but we heard great arguments we hope digital teams will reuse.
Savings is definitely a keyword. Governments are looking for ways to save money while delivering similar or even better outcomes. Digital service teams who use internet-era ways of working are often able to make significant savings, even if their ultimate aim is to improve outcomes for citizens.
We also heard about the importance of working on high-visibility projects. Digital service teams should make sure the projects they are working on find strong support among politicians, even within the opposition, as governments eventually change.
Another thing I took from this convening is the importance of aligning digital needs with citizen and political priorities. It is also useful for digital teams to work on services and platforms which bring value to other departments, where they can enlist advocates. These advocates may help make a difference when asking for additional investment.
3. Digital service teams need levers to scale their impact across government
‘Levers’ are the tools digital service units have to lead change within their organisation. Some levers can be considered to be hard powers, like spending control which sets a clear authority over budgets. Digital service units may also use soft powers, like hiring, which solely relies on the ability of teams to attract talents.
At the convening, we heard from Tom Loosemore, Partner at Public Digital, and co-founder of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS). Tom went through the different levers used by GDS from its start in 2011 until 2015. I hadn’t realised how strategic they were before Tom highlighted the importance of using levers wisely, in the right combination, and at the right time.
At the beginning, GDS had to achieve quick wins to secure support across government. It focused on creating the UK ePetitions service first. In 8 weeks GDS delivered a service which is now used by tens of millions of people. This would not have been possible without a ‘magic wand’ – a lever that can make digital service units temporarily immune to certain rules or processes that other departments must adhere to. It allowed GDS to fast-track hiring practices when it mattered the most, bringing people into the government digital team in a matter of days which was previously unheard of.
This allowed GDS to attract the attention of journalists which meant they could then use their ‘communications power’ lever to secure the support of the government, and access new hard levers, such as spending control – a very powerful lever. GDS used spending control to rationalise IT expenditures, especially on long-term and vendor lock-in contracts.
I hope Tom’s presentation prompted teams to look for and recognise the levers they have available to them currently, and then think about how they can use them to access more levers.
4. Collaboration can help governments deliver new services and platforms faster
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of collaborating and working in the open. I had not realised how much time digital teams can save by code sharing when developing new services. It became clear when we heard from Spencer Daniels from Ontario Digital Service. His team used the code written by the digital team of Alberta Health Services to build a coronavirus self-assessment tool in just a few days. You can read more about this here.
I also had the chance to learn more about X-Road from Petteri Kivimäki from the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS). X-Road is a free and open-source data exchange layer solution, which enables organisations to securely share data. X-Road is now used globally, but it all started in Estonia.
They first shared their code with Finland, who quickly realised they had to make adjustments to fit their needs. In order to work jointly on the same code base, they decided to create a joint organisation with a unique governance model and the responsibility of developing X-Road. This is how NIIS was created.
There are many more examples of collaborative work and knowledge sharing I find inspiring. Continuing to work like this across countries and organisations has many benefits.
Collaboration is also about getting together, and sharing experiences. We are extremely grateful to all our Digital Services Convening participants this year. We heard great stories – both successes and challenges – which we hope will inspire the work of others in the future.
We know the coming months are not going to be easy for digital teams because of the lasting uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic. Collaboration will keep playing an important role as digital teams explore new ways to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and deploy new services.
We’re already looking forward to seeing you all next year, with more best practices and lessons learned to share.