Celebrating digital services teams in 2020-1

Written by Mike Bracken and David Eaves.


The Digital Services Convening is an annual event hosted by the The Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Public Digital. This year - our fourth - brought together over 100 digital government practitioners from over 47 countries to meet, learn and share successes. It’s not just about talk. It is where participants Show The Thing. And while celebrating successes are important, the conference’s real secret has been to create a space where leaders and practitioners can be candid, sharing hard lessons and failures.

Last year, a Cambridge University study described the Digital Services Convening as one of the key digital government conferences globally. We’re proud to co-host it and support the digital service community. We’ve come a long way in three years. We have more attendees, countries and teams involved. They’re working at different scales, in different contexts, but learning from each other.

The 4th Digital Convening: a lot of heart, many lessons

Part of this growth was reflected in new participation with over 40 national and provincial digital teams from places like Colombia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

The 2020 Convening naturally focused on the digital response to Covid-19 crisis. That response has been digital, fought with the capabilities governments had rather than the ones they wanted. This year was about how Covid-19 is maturing the role of digital in many governments. In many places Covid-19 has become a catalyst for change, sweeping away much of the institutional inertia that has prevented many countries from pursuing digital strategies more aggressively. But Covid-19 has simultaneously made many gaps and challenges starker, highlighting inequalities in accessing digital public services. There is much work to do still.

It has been a big year in digital government - sometimes because of Covid and sometimes despite it. In the past year digital service units have won more funding, appointed and empowered brilliant leaders, built and scaled new teams and delivered considerable public impact. It’s important to pause and take stock of the incredible work committed digital public servants are doing all around the world. Here are just some of their achievements:

Committed funding

The Canadian Digital Service has secured permanent funding. New South Wales is investing $1.6b over 3 years in its Digital Restart Fund. The American Rescue Plan has allocated £200m for the United States Digital Service. These funding commitments show that administrations are both taking digital seriously, starting to invest in sustainability more deliberately, and preferring agile approaches over “big bang” IT projects.

New leadership

Robin Carnahan has been appointed Administrator to the US General Services Administration. Tamara Srzentić is the Minister of Public Administration, Digital Society and Media in Montenegro. Digital experts are growing in influence, and will have the agency to protect and improve government digital infrastructure.

Building teams

Japan is setting up a new digital service group - with Hiroki Yoshida, a former HKS fellow, who built a digital team within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, playing a leading role. The Greek government is putting digital right at the heart of its agenda. Digital Service 4 Germany has been established as the new software development unit for the German government. GovTech Singapore launched a new Digital Academy with an ambition to train more than 6000 public servants by the end of March 2022. Sierra Leone and Nigeria are also investing in digital courses for civil servants.

Morocco has established a ‘digital factory’ to accelerate service delivery and built citizen-centered services. The West Java (Jabar) Digital Service in Indonesia now has 150 people across product, design, delivery, communications, making government more responsive, innovative and adaptive. Madagascar’s digital governance unit was set up last year, and has grown to around 25 people under the leadership of the government’s first Chief Digital Officer. The Colorado Digital Service is working to build a citizen-centred perspective on the work of government.

All of these new digital teams have challenging contextual problems, for example Japan’s aging population or Mongolia’s sparse population density. But they agree that digital will help them serve their populations better.

Engaged Citizens

Brazil reached 100 million citizens registered at gov.br - 2 years ago under 2 million were registered. 527 government services are now available on the new platform E-Mongolia, the portal for public services in Mongolia. It is already used by 77% of its adult population. Massachusetts Digital Service have launched their first digitally native service: the Paid Family and Medical Leave Service.

Code sharing and collaboration

Code sharing is important because it accelerates improvements. This Convening played a lead role in helping Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs adopt GOV.UK’s Notify service. Iceland joined the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions, a growing multilateral agreement to share and develop a software platform together to make development and data exchange more efficient. David Eaves, Tom Steinberg, Ines Merges and 15+ faculty released Teaching Public Service in a Digital Age, which brings public policy training into the internet era.

Public Digital and the Harvard Ash Center will keep celebrating, collaborating with and supporting these teams. They are doing vitally important work to redesign public services, respond to crises, drive institutional reform, and benefit millions of people. Digital. Teams. Work.

Our next post will outline some of the themes and insights from the Convening, and explore how the digital community looks forward. You can read our write ups of previous years here:

2018 - Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves

2019 - What happened at Harvard this year

2020 - Co-hosting the third annual Digital Services Convening with the Harvard Kennedy School


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