5 themes from the Code for America summit

I was lucky to be able to attend the Code for America summit in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago. It was great to be able to gather with people in person after all this time, and reconnect with the community. The event felt diverse and exciting. That’s so important because after the past few years, everyone needs some fresh energy and to reconnect with a bigger vision.

Participants at Code for America

Participants at Code for America. Source: Code for America.

Start with Why

We’ve all talked a lot over the past few years about the big digital concepts like user-centred design and multi-disciplinary teams. But seeing internet era ways of working centred on policy imperatives like the social safety net is inspiring. It’s a chance to make the work more impactful.

That’s important: for political leaders to buy in, digital needs to connect to a policy agenda, so the proposition - the why - matters.

Fix the damn websites

I was one of the founders of GOV.UK, and have since helped senior leaders across many governments think about how they meet user needs on the web. So much good work has been done, but it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go. Websites remain many people's first route into government. But all too often no-one can quite say what any given website is even for, let alone how they’ll make sure the content is good enough to meet its users’ needs.

So it was good to hear Robin Carnahan calling that out at the conference, saying: “fix the damn websites”.

There’s no such thing as an edge, so design for whole services

Once you start on fixing the websites, it becomes clear that new websites can ease some pains. But to be truly transformative you need to think about whole services: yes, the web experience, but also the policy, the operations, and all the channels people use to interact.

That’s really hard when many services are defined, funded and structured across layers of government, so our ambition needs to be to build multi-disciplinary teams and take that challenge on.

Lara Sampson and Anna Hirschfeld from Public Digital, talked about just that in their session on the conference’s virtual track, with a powerful message that when you’re designing whole services there are no edge cases.

Use the ecosystem

Coming from the UK and working across a variety of governments, I’m always interested to see what’s distinctive about digital government works in different countries.

More than ever I was struck this time by the breadth of the ecosystem in the US: not just people working across three or four layers of government, but also the role of philanthropic foundations in creating space for new approaches, of volunteers to respond to crises and bootstrap work, of companies who measure success on impact not just profit, and of academic and not-for-profit organisations who can convene people across boundaries.

That ecosystem has been very visible in the way that USDS and Code for America have collaborated recently to make it easier for people on low incomes to access Child Tax Credit, and before that in the work of organisations like US Digital Response in helping all layers of government through two years of particular crisis.

Build more capability

The next challenge, as Mike noted in his blog post as Biden was coming to power, is to ensure that at all levels there are institutions and capability that can persist. That can harness that ecosystem but not be unduly dependent on it. And that know how to access that ecosystem for support, but also to harness that to become more resilient.

At the very least, that means taking recruitment and training to the next level. We need to help existing government leaders get more comfortable leading and using the tools of the digital age. We also need to address existing skills gaps around particular digital disciplines, and get smarter about how those parts of government with privileged access to skills can support those where it’s harder. (Hint: platforms help.)

Forward

It was great to meet and catch-up with so many old friends and fellow travellers at the conference. There were others who were missed, not there (or visiting very briefly) because they were busy running services and institutions. That’s a sign of real progress.

The challenges of the next stage - of going deeper and wider - are very real. Nearly ten years since we launched GOV.UK and internet-era institutions like CFPB emerged, the summit showed that the conditions and capabilities are in place to go a lot further.

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