Hackernoon logoDigital citizens and startup governments by@asandre

Digital citizens and startup governments

Andreas Sandre Hacker Noon profile picture

Andreas Sandre

Comms + policy. Author of #digitaldiplomacy (2015), Twitter for Diplomats (2013). My views here.

The Declaration of Independence: July 4th 1776, by Ralph Trembly after the original by John Trumbull. Philadelphia: J.T. Bowen, (between 1838 and 1841.)

How to hack government and craft better services.

In his farewell address to the nation last week, outgoing US president Barack Obama talked about the role of “the most important office in a democracy: Citizen.”

It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen.

As he highlighted: “So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”

Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.

That also means to be able to enjoy the full power of the digital era by making sure we, as citizens, are able to use digital services in all areas of citizenship and at all levels, local and federal, from education and healthcare, to petitions, immigration, transparency, and more.

But it’s not only for government to guide this process. As digital citizens we also need to understand our role in startupping our democracy and guiding a digitization that produces services that hack the current status, shorten waiting times, and empower us with a full digital citizenship.

It’s not easy. It has not been easy and it won’t be easy.

In his farewell post here on Medium after two years at the helm of The U.S. Digital Service (USDS), Mikey Dickerson quotes Steve Jobs:

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

But this is a process, also for us as citizens. And it’s not an easy one.

Dickerson admits: “ When I look back on the last two years, I’m astounded by how difficult this work has been to do, but those struggles pale in comparison to the positive impact the team has made on the lives of millions of Americans.”

USDS was created to improve the US Federal Government’s most important public-facing digital services. It is a collaboration between some of the country’s top technical talent and the government’s brightest civil servants, who work in partnership to apply private sector best practices to digital services, including services for citizens.

In other words, the goal is to startup the government and make its services leaner, more efficient, widely available, and more transparent.

USDS is not the only government entity around the world to have focused on building a government startup.

The United Kingdom was probably the first to focus on an innovative digital government platform, with the creation of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), within the Cabinet Office.

It all started in 2011 with a new, single UK government website — then alpha.gov.uk and now gov.uk — “using open, agile, multi-disciplinary product development techniques and technologies, shaped by an obsession with meeting user needs,” as their mission stated. The prototype was developed in 12 weeks for around $400,000 and GDS formally opened for business on December 8, 2011.

Today, the goal remains to build and support services that put the user first, to make things open and better for citizens. In five years, according to GDS head Kevin Cunnington, the agency has grown to over 700 people, and it’s now recruiting at a rate of 45 additional people a month.

In startup terms, that’s a major success. In terms of digital government, it is hugely important.

Just like for Dickerson, it has not been easy and, while exciting, the road ahead is paved by uncertainties.

It won’t be easy, and we may not see instant results, but we know that what we’re doing is important. A brilliant foundation has been laid.

In Australia, that same model was implemented a year ago with the founding of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO). Like for USDS in the US and GDS in the UK, the mission is ambitious, as highlighted by Paul Shetler, head of DTO.

It’s been a busy 12 months. It hasn’t always been easy. It’s also important to remember that we aren’t doing this alone. We’re working in partnership with departments and agencies across government to get there.

One of the priorities has been a recruitment drive, seeking the best developers, designers and user researchers in Australia to come and help. They also invested on crafting partnerships with local governments around Australia to train people and focus their activity.

In addtion, DTO has also worked in partnership with government digital teams around the world. Shelter himself, a co-founded two start-ups and with leadership experience at Oracle and Microsoft, also worked at GDS in the UK, and before that at the UK Ministry of Justice.

Sharing best practices and ideas between teams in different countries is key for the success of government tech startups.

The experiments and experiences at USDS, GDS, and DTO are now part of a new project in Italy where in 2016 the Team Digitale — Team per la Trasformazione Digitale (Digital Transformation Team) — was launched by then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The new team, operating within the Office of the Prime Minister and with an initial mandate of two years, is headed by Diego Piacentini, a former executive at Apple and Amazon, and Paolo Barberis, Innovation Adviser to the Italian Prime Minister.

Its mission is to “assist the Government in accelerating the digital transformation of the country and to support the simplification of the relationship between the Public Administration, citizens and business,” as explained by Piacentini in a Medium post.

And like for Australia’s DTO, the initial focus was to recruit a team of Italian visionaries and innovators from around the world.

Without an enthusiastic and competent pool of talents, I will not go too far. I, therefore, decided to write my first post addressing those potential candidates directly.

Now, the Italian team works on building the foundations, to start creating the core components of what Piacentini calls a “new operating system of the country.” This will be achieved by “adopting a management style that is agile, collaborative and efficient and by sharing our work with citizens, businesses and the Public Administration.” And of course, the process has to focus on ethical hacking, while protecting the security and privacy of the users, as Giovanni Bajo and Gianluca Varisco explain in a Medium post.

Estonia has also been another great example for the success of digital transformation. The Estonian government focused its efforts on facilitating citizen interactions with the state through the use of electronic solutions, including the very first e-residency— a transnational digital identity available to anyone interested in establishing and administering a location-independent business online.

Europe is investing heavily on the digital transformation of government as a key element to the success of the DigitalSingleMarket, helping to remove existing digital barriers and preventing further fragmentation arising in the context of the modernization of public administrations. The European Unions’ eGovernment Action Plan 2016–2020 aims to modernize public administration, to achieve the digital internal market, and to engage more with citizens and businesses to deliver high quality services.

In Asia, as highlighted in the fall by Emma Gawen, formerly with GDS, Singapore officially launched it’s new Government Technology Agency (GovTech), aimed at supporting it’s smart nation agenda and improving government services through digital transformation, while Thailand announced plans to establish a new Ministry of Digital Economy and Society to stay competitive on the world stage and meet international standards.

2017 is going to be an exciting year for digital transformation teams around the world. The expectations are high and so are the stakes for the millions of citizens around the world who deserve better services, more transparent, clearer, and certainly more user-friendly. Startups, whether launched by government or not, have highs and lows. Teams are important: their passion, their vision, and their tech expertise.

Andreas Sandre Hacker Noon profile picture
by Andreas Sandre @asandre. Comms + policy. Author of #digitaldiplomacy (2015), Twitter for Diplomats (2013). My views here.Read my book!


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