Five guidelines for a digital public service

A 6 minute read written by Paul November 9, 2015

Five guidelines for a digital public service
"There is no reason that government can't have good online services."
Cyd Harrell, Product Director, Code for America.

There is a belief in government that you can’t have nice things if you do it yourself, especially when it comes to the digital realm (digital includes all the online touchpoints of your organization – web, mobile, apps, e-mail, social, etc.). I’ve heard – and in the past I’ve perpetuated – a narrative that a government organization has to start by picking the right tools, then choosing the right vendors, and then hoping for the best.

I’ve been cured of this belief, and I hope you can be too. It’s government’s job to become craftspeople for digital (and service delivery in general), pick tools that you can master, and bring in external support where you need special skills, additional capacity, or a mentor.

Learning from the best

I’m privileged to have recently worked with a major Canadian municipality to build a roadmap for digital. They weren’t asking for a digital strategy, they were asking the prerequisite question, “What organizational levers could we pull to generate transformation in how we do digital?” Part of my work was to interview and audit peer organizations that are thriving to understand how they generated transformation. I connected with federal, regional, and municipal initiatives in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., and collected war stories and lessons learned.

In every case, there were patterns that I believe organizations can follow in order to improve service quality, while reducing the cost of service delivery.

1. You need a vision for digital

First you need to agree that this is important, and that you are committed to it. Your senior leadership needs to see the business evidence for digital transformation because it’s going to create change, and change can lead to conflict. According to the Institute for Citizen-Centred Services (Canada’s internationally recognized public service research group -, citizen satisfaction is driven by speed, ease of use, and the ability to complete a service transaction through a single channel. Digital is the best single channel for improving speed and usability.

If being the best channel wasn’t enough, digital is also the least expensive. We’ve all heard consultants suggest it, but recently, the U.K. government started releasing actual data to support this claim. It analyzed the total cost of service for booking a driving test and published this data on its blog: “… booking a driving test costs £6.62 by post, £4.11 by telephone, but just £0.22 online”.

Digital makes business sense, but leadership needs to believe it and own it.

2. You need a digital team

In each case where an organization had produced good results, I found people who owned the digital channel. A friend of mine who runs arts festivals has an expression: “It’s never what or how, it’s always who.” You need to start with “who” is going to do this work, and decide what and how next.

In some cases, a senior leader who demanded an improved level of digital service commissioned the digital office, as was the case in the Government of Canada’s ongoing initiative to improve information delivery. Some of these teams rose up through a groundswell and annexed digital activity, which is how the U.S. Digital Service’s 18F team came to exist.

Teams need leaders. Jess McMullin from the Centre for Citizen Experience describes a “Gov Whisperer” as the person with the right mix of hustle, negotiation skills, domain expertise, and organizational muscle to create a positive influence for the digital channel and help the digital team navigate the waters of change management. Look for this person (or people) in your organization.

You also need to foster key skills, including:

  • Library sciences. Information and content management is going to be core business.
  • Social sciences. You are going to need researchers to observe, learn, document, and test.
  • Writing. It is better to have poor technology with amazing content than the inverse.
  • User experience design and prototyping. You need people who can storyboard and sketch, and people who can prototype and test.
  • Analytics people. Becoming literate in analytics is critical so that your team can make data-driven decisions.

You can get these skills by partnering with agencies, recruiting, or seconding from elsewhere in your organization.

3. You need to start with users

User-first means more than just running some tests. It means that projects don’t even get started until the question “What should we do?” has been answered based on user needs, not business needs. Business sponsors should bring objectives like, “We want to reduce the cost of delivery” or “We want more people to discover our recreational facilities,” not “We need an app.”

Where we saw digital activity thriving, organizations had invited citizens into government buildings and workspaces for consultation, testing, and validation.

As humans, we have a confirmation bias. We like to believe that we’re right, and we love discovering evidence that appears to agree with us. User-first is grounded in humility and curiosity.

4. You need to make small bets

The great differentiator that digital brings is the ability to measure and improve quickly. The most important belief that you need to absorb into your culture is that managed failure is a positive part of a learning organization. A failed idea is just one more dead end you don’t have to worry about anymore.

Many of the leaders I spoke to used modern, open source technology to quickly scale up prototypes so that ideas can be validated and tested with real people. Using these modern tools also helps foster a work environment that will appeal to the digital workers you are trying to recruit and retain. You may eventually have to roll out services on heavy enterprise platforms, but don’t make people start there.

You need to start making smaller bets to win in the long run.

5. Burn your org chart

OK, don’t really. Your organizational chart is vital for people to understand what their job is and how to do it. But when it comes to digital, you need to understand two things:

  1. Your customer/user/citizen is more likely to be harmed than helped by your departmental structures while trying to access services.
  2. Digital initiatives require a project team that crosses organizational boundaries.

This is going to bring up conversations about budget and resources, and job descriptions and reporting structures. It’s going to expose those messy corners of your organization where people have struggled for years to attain roles, autonomy, and relationships. This is why you need to have buy-in from the top level, and a vision that everyone is aligned to.

Collaboration is the path forward

This post might seem to be misaligned to my own interests, since Yellow Pencil is a professional services organization with a strong track record in public sector work. But we’ve seen this coming for a while, and we’ve been working on some transformation ourselves.

When you have a company full of ideas people and makers, it’s difficult to think about sharing significant pieces of the work with your customer; as individuals, we are motivated by conceiving of great experiences and shipping great code. We love this work and want to do more of it.

However, the one thing that transcends the rewards of creating and shipping is collaboration. It’s rare, but when we get to a point where we are working and producing together with our clients, that is a great human experience. So we’re working to change the way we respond to RFPs, write statements of work, and talk about projects and customers.

Given the transformation required to achieve the guidelines above, we know that our city and government partners are going to need hard-to-find skills, a mentor from time to time, or extra horsepower when you get to the heavy lifting of building out great experiences on enterprise software systems.

Oh, and we also specialize in fully managed applications and infrastructure, because we understand that it’s hard for government to run 24-hours a day, and digital doesn’t close its doors at 5 p.m.

Good luck with your journey, and give us a call if we can help you along the way.