The digital challenge for team Biden is to build new institutional models

The departing administration leaves a depleted government. Staff are tired, services are weak, and trust is eroded. A cyber security crisis threatens the very integrity of the Republic.

The challenge is not just to fix the mess. The opportunity is to build institutions that can persist. And the place to start is federal and state digital services. Use the potential of new services to breathe life into existing institutions, and start some newer, dynamic ones.

Depending on the outstanding Senate votes, regulatory powers may be limited, so the plan has to be delivery. And digital delivery is quick, pervasive and will be noticed by millions if deployed well. Much has been written domestically about the digital challenge ahead. We agree with much of it, especially Erie and Jen.

I have some observations from an international perspective which may be useful.

Firstly, all is not lost. There are some great digital people and teams across the federal and state government. Matt Cutts has kept the US Digital Service going in Washington. Defence has great digital skills. There are many more. They need networking around a common cause. That cause is the rebuild of the machinery of Government in ways that the public can see and appreciate, at scale.

There are several things to do at once.

Hire well. Hire a team, not just a figurehead.

It will be tempting to hire a Big IT or Big Consulting alumnus to lead digital programmes. Or a Silicon Valley visionary, or a civic tech leader. Someone with flashy charts and announcements.

Don’t do that. Government services won’t be ‘saved’ by drive-by thinking from Silicon Valley or Wall Street. You need a good number of serious bureaucratic hackers in GSA. And you need to spend time with them as a team in order to make them your delivery engine for your administration. Find accomplished public service administrators who can lead mission-driven technology people, commit to challenging decisions, and deliver change. I’ve found at Public Digital that those who have been successful at digital transformation at scale often have deep experience in three areas of government: finance, human service or customer operations, and the creation of new digital units.

You need strong financial controls around technology spending across agencies, and a single federal sign-off for large scale spending. Open standards, enforced Government protocols and bias against rent-seeking arrangements with vendors should be introduced. These powers exist already, but now need muscular attention. Digital teams capable of running these controls should be the norm, not the exception, and there are many leaders at state level who can work this way if empowered. A model here may be Minister Victor Dominello in New South Wales. Regardless, network those leaders as you do your members of Congress, and give them power.

Other hires could include a digital brand and communications leader to reset the federal government with a new digital brand presence, as we did in the UK with GOV.UK, and as Mexico did with GOB.MX. It is an excellent opportunity to embed your core values via visual design, and clearly communicate a break with the recent past.

You may want to consider an experienced people and culture leader to finally network the many islands of talent across the federal system. There is an exponential benefit in creating digital communities of practice across the many agencies of Government. In short, use your people to establish what good looks like, and promote that.

Governments as diverse as Uruguay, Estonia and Bangladesh demonstrate world class digital competence in many areas. The US could learn more from them. They’ve succeeded by empowering teams to deliver long term change. The Obama administration benefitted from the ‘tour of duty’ approach. Many in USDS were pioneers, and successfully so. But now is the time to build the longer term institution that will prevail after this administration.

Improve public services fast by focusing on digital.

Digital services are both the primary way citizens experience government services today, and the best way to effect rapid improvement. Federal and state government services are critically important: USA.gov, VA services, MedicAid and others serve millions of citizens yearly but are currently weak. Some technology decisions have been questionable. Government services don’t put citizens first. The websites and applications don’t look like they belong to the same government. These services could all be made coherent and brilliantly effective.

In 2010, the UK had exactly this problem. GDS replaced 2,000 government websites with GOV.UK, which made government look more joined up and made it work better. If US federal and state government digital services work well, then you’ll be delivering real, visible results to real people.

Many states are already working on vaccine dashboards. Tying vaccine data together with Covid case data federally would be valuable to all Americans. CDC should build this to show how vaccine plans are progressing, and how vaccines are performing into 2021 and beyond. Rapid delivery like this would build public confidence in the new administration, and internal confidence in digital.

Another challenge is cyber security. Recent attacks may require the technology infrastructure of several parts of Government may need to be rebuilt afresh. This will be an additional catalyst: now is the time to dig deep and double down on digital. Do this to defend from future attacks, but also to strengthen the institutional knowledge inside each agency that will leave them less vulnerable to outsourcing all security.

Build capability that will persist.

The work must go further and deeper than fixing problems and delivering projects. You need to create institutional models with longer-term foundations.

The USDS has been a pioneering organisation, but as needs broaden from pure innovation to services that run at scale and increase trust, it is time for the pioneer mindset to evolve into a settler and town planner approach. This adaptation would also let USDS become an institution that can persist and create and support careers, while taking a longer-term perspective. An exemplar here is Uruguay, which has over the last few years created a digital institution that has spanned several administrations, and will last.

The bigger mission is the rebuild of the machinery of Government in ways that the public can see and appreciate, at scale. To do that, digital leaders will need proper decision-making authority: the power to hire and fire, and to set the agenda and targets. This will give USDS a sharp edge, accountability and the institutional power to get results.

The 100 day build.

You promised that your administration would vaccinate 100m citizens in 100 days. That’s outstanding. In the same time you should create a new look USA.gov, establish a new and inclusive digital brand for US Federal Government, and set up digital teams in the agencies of state that matter.

Create a vaccine dashboard and show progress in the Covid response. Start the bold work of rebuilding government digitally to make it stronger and safer from external threats. You could sort out all federal domains well before the mid-terms, to give a consistent design and service level for Government to everyone in the USA.

Hire well, improve services, and build for the future. Rebuild government as a force for the benefit of all Americans by strengthening services, and by winning trust. The strategy should be delivery. Digital delivery.

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