Comms + policy. Author of #digitaldiplomacy (2015), Twitter for Diplomats (2013). My views here.
Today more than ever, entrepreneurs, innovators, and the tech community are having an important impact on how government works and thinks. It is about applying Silicon Valley models and best practices to a world that too often finds itself stuck in the murky waters of bureaucracy.
The United States is not the only government that has invested in technology and innovation to make services more citizen-centric, more user-friendly, faster, and with a digital-first focus.
The United Kingdom was probably the first to focus on an innovative digital government platform, with the creation of the UK Government Digital Service, 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.
In a keynote speech at Google Zeitgeist to present the prototype, then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, highlighted how the digital age and the incredible disruptive impact of the internet do not represent a threat for government, but rather an opportunity.
Look at almost any big social change of the past 200 years and you will see that it has been driven by a paradigm shift in communication technology. Newspapers. Radio. Telephony. Television. And now — most dramatically of all — the internet. As we all know, virtually every walk of life is being affected in some way by the internet and new technology.
The prototype was in fact what tech startups call MVP, or minimal viable product. Since then, 25 ministerial departments and 374 government agencies have joined and merged into gov.uk with services that range from passports to opening a business and renewing your driver’s license. Progress reports run quarterly and the transparency layers have been added to all services, including performance dashboards, completion rates, and user satisfaction.
Following the many successes of the digital government experiment in the UK, in May 2014, the United States launched 18F, an office inside the General Services Administration (GSA) to help other federal agencies build, buy, and share efficient and easy-to-use digital services.
18F — the name is the address of the agency’s headquarters in Washington DC — is often linked to the Presidential Innovation Fellowship (PIF) program, launched in 2012 by President Barack Obama and created by then US Chief Technology Officer Todd Park together with colleagues Steven VanRoekel, Peter L. Levin, and John Paul Farmer.
And while PIF started as an experiment to bring entrepreneurs, executives, technologists, designers and other innovators into government, and team them up with federal employees and agencies to improve government services, it became a permanent program in 2014.
Shortly after the formation of 18F, and under the guidance of a few Presidential Innovation Fellows, President Obama launched The U.S. Digital Service (USDS). Like the PIF program and 18F, one of the strategic aims is to “bring best-of-class, private-sector engineers into government for time-limited tours of duty,” and task them with bringing a modern perspective to key technology initiatives.
But while 18F provides the team that is dispatched to agencies to fix services and digital platforms, USDS — which is strategically housed within the Office of the President — provides the strategy and consulting services on how to move forward. And both operates as tech startups within the federal government.
Speaking at TED Haley van dyck, co-founder and deputy administrator of USDS, described how government’s failure to deliver digital services that work is disproportionately impacting the very people who need it most.
Let me paint the picture for you. The federal government is the largest institution in the world. It spends over 86 billion dollars a year — 86 billion — on federal IT projects. For context, that is more than the entire venture capital industry spends annually on everything. […] We care about making government work better, because it’s the only one we’ve got.
This past summer USDS celebrated its second anniversary. In a post on Medium, USDS highlighted how the team is trying to achieve the agency ambitious mission: “to apply best practices in technology and design to improve the usability and reliability of our government’s most important digital services.”
Two years later, it all seems (a bit) less daunting.
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.
DTO also works 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 the Team Digitale — Team per la Trasformazione Digitale (Digital Transformation Team) — was just launched by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The new team, operating within the Office of the Prime Minister, 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.
The first task for Italy is to recruit a team of Italian visionaries and innovators from around the world, and Piacentini took to Medium to start.
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.
It’s an exciting year for all those digital teams, form the US to Italy, and beyond. 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.
Buon lavoro to all!
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