The digital government reading list: nine blogs you should know about

Digital transformation is entering a new phase — read these takes from the experts

If you work in digital government, you’re probably past the days when your job title was met with a quizzical look. Governments have been using dedicated digital service teams to design and develop new, citizen-facing services online for some years now.

But as David Eaves, lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School writes, it’s precisely this point — “the end of the beginning” — where things become interesting for digital service units. They have to seize their chance to push beyond successful pilot projects and isolated services to drive government-wide transformation.

Over the last decade many lessons have been learned, best practices honed and mistakes made. To help navigate the next phase, we’ve assembled a selection of blogs from the people who’ve been there and done it to help digital teams prepare for the task ahead. From around the world and various levels of government, here are the key lessons of how to update government for the internet era.

We hope you’ll find it helpful. Feel free to add your own ideas for blogs in the comments below.

The End of the Beginning of Digital Service Units
David Eaves, lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and program director of DigitalHKS

Through their work to date, advocates within government have proved the need for digital services to exist. Thanks to successful projects, other public servants can see the value in building clear, effective services online.

For Eaves, successful teams have had two components: a “North Star”, or flagship project to work on, and an agile and iterative approach to working. Now, to really push on and achieve deeper digital transformation, digital service teams must demonstrate not just the short-term benefit of these reforms, but that they’re essential components of government.

Making government as a platform real
Tom Loosemore, partner at the digital transformation consultancy Public Digital and co-founder of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS)

Loosemore, as co-founder of GDS, was behind some of the pioneering digital reforms within the British government which have guided and inspired teams around the world. In this long-form post he goes through the whole story, giving readers the why, what and how of what government can and should be in the internet era. It’s a clear and engaging exposition of what “government as a platform” is and how it should work, and is filled with examples from the GDS experience. While GDS’s story is a successful one, for Loosemore it could have gone so much further.

Delivery-driven government: principles and practices for government in the digital age
Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America founder and chief executive and former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer

Pahlka has borne witness to successful technology projects across the US at the state and city level. In this post she contrasts her experiences of these with gridlock at the central government level, and attempts to diagnose why it’s so difficult for central government to drive through change. For Pahlka, the answer lies in the way policy is made: there are too few feedback loops, there’s too little user-testing and there’s not nearly enough fast-paced delivery of services which can then be improved incrementally over time. For government to deliver on the promises of the internet era, it needs to change the way it works.

Exploring change and how to scale it
Pia Andrews, open government leader and the Executive Director of Digital Government in the New South Wales Department of Finance, Services and Innovation

Scaling digital projects from successful pilots to countrywide reforms can be difficult. You need to win approval and change mindsets across the whole government organisation, which, more often than not, can be bitterly resistant to change. Andrews has worked in government in Australia and New Zealand, and throughout has set her eye on the digital transformation of the entire public sector. Here she lays out her ideas of how to crack that tricky scaling problem.

Learning through failure: story of a postmortem
Paolo de Rosa, cloud & data center worker for the Italian government’s Digital Transformation Team

Often, the stories told about digital government come from the same few places: the UK, the US, Canada or Estonia. But around the world governments are embarking on the same journey, and many of them face significant obstacles. In Italy, with an ageing public service workforce and hundreds of different municipal governments, the challenge is particularly stark. And in every government, projects can stall, or collapse altogether. The trouble is, few people are willing to talk about their mistakes.

In this blogpost, de Rosa talks through how Italy’s digital transformation team react when nothing goes right. Rather than cover up the mistakes, by establishing a “policy post-mortem” the team commits to working just out how something failed. Through it, they aim to build resilience, and avoid having to uproot trees further down the line. It’s a process that every government would do well to learn from.

15 principles of good service design
Lou Downe, director of design and service standards for the UK Government

Good government services don’t come from out of nowhere — they have to be designed. For digital teams, good design isn’t just about the way a webpage looks, but how people interact with it. To get it right, service designers need to put themselves in the shoes of their users, empathise with their needs and their level of digital literacy, and try to make accessing a service as seamless as possible. Here, Downe lays out their 15 principles for designing a good service.

Tailor-made services for citizens, a designer community is born
Matteo De Santi and Lorenzo Fabbri, product and content designers for the Italian government’s Digital Transformation Team

Another post from the Italian government’s Digital Transformation Team, but this time on the importance of including users in the design process from the very beginning. This is an entertainingly written and immersive blogpost on why getting service design right matters and why designers should always try to put themselves in the shoes of the users they design for. Complete with Simpsons references, it’s a great piece on why design should be seen as a core element of digitisation.

Canada’s open by default procurement pilot: an experiment in agility
Jaimie Boyd, lead on open government implementation at @opengovcan in the government of Canada

Buying better is now rightly recognised as one of the central planks of digital reform. Increasingly, governments are turning away from buying huge, expensive IT systems from the same old providers. Through setting up challenges, competitions and funds specifically for small tech businesses, departments are finding ways to purchase services and technology that lasts, for a fraction of the cost.

In this post, Boyd walks us through a recent raft of reforms made by the Canadian government to procure faster and better from the private sector. The mantra here is radical transparency: open code, open and easily available documents, to make it as easy as possible for small businesses to understand and navigate the government buying process.

AI in 2018: a year in review
AI Now Institute, New York University’s in-house team working on the ethics of artificial intelligence

2018 has been the year where government rushed for artificial intelligence. In March, President of France Emmanuel Macron announced his government would spend €1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) over five years to make his country a world leader in the technology. Elsewhere, both national and local governments have been experimenting with machine-learning to improve government efficiency, spot gaps in their awareness and even to revolutionise healthcare.

And yet, there are major concerns. Does the data used to train these machine learning algorithms contain historical biases that government is missing? And does turning over decision-making to a machine, even if they’re only allowed to give advice, risk reinforcing these biases, and worse, make the decisions built on them seem objective?

This blogpost, based on AI Now’s third annual symposium, navigates the state of the debate in 2018, and raises the tricky questions all digital teams need to ask when working with AI. —  Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Stefan Grage)

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