Can government get digital services to stick?

What top digital leaders say is needed for true transformation.

Digital services have been a focal point for the Obama administration, with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, 18F, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and now the General Services Administration's Technology Transformation Service all aimed at changing the way the government uses technology to serve its customers.

The results so far have been decidedly mixed, however. There have been successes, but many agencies continue to grapple with questions of staffing, structure, funding and general buy-in. So on May 10, FCW gathered a broad cross-section of digital service and citizen engagement experts to explore what works -- and what's still needed.

The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution. (See the end of this article for a full list of participants.)

Differing definitions

The group acknowledged that the embrace of digital services has varied so widely in part because the term can mean so many things. As one executive quipped, "Some people are just saying, 'Oh, is that what I need to call my old pet project?'"

Most of the participants agreed, however, that their efforts are fundamentally a modernization exercise and, more important, one that truly seeks to determine what the user needs before diving into that modernization.

The users might be citizens, government employees or some other customer entirely, but "it's about finding out what they want, how they want it, when they want it and not making assumptions about that."

Under that broad umbrella, one participant noted, digital services can include agile user-centered design, talent development and even policy changes. "I don't actually think it matters whether we're all defining it the same way," he said. "There is a core, underlying thread, which is, 'How can we make the work the government does more relatable to the people it is trying to serve?'"

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The group also addressed the charge that digital teams too often tackle the bright-and-shiny projects around the margins and steer clear of the big core systems that comprise so much of federal IT. Several argued that the iterative approach is not an alternative to enterprise-level change but rather a path toward it.

"You need to use the success of [those quick fixes], and you've got to plow that into getting the next project that gets closer to the core," one executive said. "That's a lot of what we're doing, just making fixes now that help but also [building] a case for even bigger change."

Starting small and delivering continuously also bring humility to the process, another added. "I haven't been in government too long, but I've already seen way more giant modernization, transformation projects than I ever wanted to. I could almost universally say that if you're calling something a big modernization program, it will probably fail."

A third participant went further: "Designing something now to be a [monolithic], huge system is actually guaranteed failure," she said.

She added that she and her team had far better results when they managed expectations and said, "Look, here's our beta. We know it's not right. Give us insight. Help us co‑create it."

"It's about setting an expectation that you can help us...make this better," she added. "I just think there are different ways we can do things when we're willing to give up control [and] understand that we actually gain influence by giving up control."

Another participant concurred and said, "It starts small. If you persist, it will ramp up.... Those big legacy systems, those are the final frontier."

Who owns the change?

A central tenet for USDS is that every project must have a clear owner, but many in the group said that was easier said than done. Some struggled to get the proper colleagues engaged while others complained of the opposite problem.

"One pain point we've experienced [is] that everyone wants to do digital transformation," one participant said. "But then you've got the IT people, like the CIO, you've got public affairs, and then you've got the new data scientist teams. When you're on the ground trying to develop and execute new ideas, that ends up stopping a lot of progress when you've got those three different groups of people going three different directions and no one owns it fully."

The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act is helping to clarify technology spending, another participant said, but that's only part of the equation. "We're in a complicated situation."

Another explained how "hedging our bets" on governance and product ownership "instead of doing it the way I'd really like to do it" is causing problems.

"We're punting and saying, 'I can assign people within my group. I can teach them. I can do the change management for them,'" the executive said. "But I don't think I'll really be successful until I have product owners in other parts of the organization."

"The way I'm defining the product‑owner role for my people is really putting them in tough situations," he added. "They have to own stuff that they don't really own and have to create relationships to support that."

The would-be partners in those relationships aren't always ready to reciprocate.

"There's definitely some preaching to the converted, and everybody I work with on a day-to-day basis is all into the Digital Services Playbook," one participant said. "But the budget people [say], 'So what?' That's an inherent tension."

Another lamented the wariness he's found among the acquisition team. "We've got career civil servants with many, many years of experience, and they just said, 'This is illegal. We're not going to do it. I won't be your [contracting officer's representative] on that contract,' and they were out."

One participant was puzzled to the point of frustration. "No one gets fired in government, and yet we're all so afraid to [make] decisions, to be disruptive," she said. "It's the strangest thing to me to come into a place where it is very hard to get fired and yet no one feels empowered to make a decision."


Others were more sympathetic about the hesitation they encountered. "There are still the institutional gates that things have to go through, and we haven't really solved that," one said. Contracting officers "actually can go to jail. There are positions that really do have risk, that we need to think about if we want this to be more than just the latest flash in the pan that will peter out after three or four years."

Another participant observed that turf wars and a tendency to pull rank can also complicate governance. "We find that people want to appoint product owners at one level below the CIO at most, which doesn't work," he said.

Still, some participants noted that program offices can often be coached into effective ownership roles. Sometimes, one said, it's as simple as saying, "You've got to sit in the same room as your developers" or "You need to use the system yourself. You can't rely on your contract testers to demo it for you and be sure that it's OK."

Real buy-in can be achieved, he said, "by helping build up the folks who are there and know the business rather than just supplanting them with agile people."

Talent tensions

Another maxim from the Digital Services Playbook is "bring in talented teams." But at least one agency executive argued that "we've done a huge disservice by the focus on bringing in external people."

He said the implicit message has been that "you, existing government worker, don't know what you're doing. We're going to bring people in to tell you how to do it." And the result is a lack of buy-in from the people who will still be around when President Barack Obama and his political appointees leave next January.

Participants who hailed from USDS and 18F objected to that characterization. "If that's the message that you feel like you're getting from the digital service anywhere in the White House or any agency, that's completely wrong," one said. Success comes only "when it's an equal partnership or when we're supporting the efforts" of career staff at an agency, he added.

Another agreed with the underlying point, if not the critique itself. "You're exactly right," he said. "You can't just have a bunch of folks land and say, 'We know how and you don't.'"

"At the same time," he added, "there are some folks who are uncomfortable with change, with doing something different, and that needs to get crowbarred out a little bit. Throwing those folks together, letting them get to know that nobody's here to hurt anybody and that they have things to teach each other is the important part."

A participant from a department that has embraced digital services only in pockets concurred with the need for a bit of crowbarring. "We're structured as an agency of 20 years ago," she said. "Fifty percent of our workforce is eligible to retire, but every time someone leaves, we just back‑fill a position.... We struggle with the human resources side of things and really structuring ourselves to be effective."

Another executive stressed the importance of recruiting program employees to be integral members of the team as opposed to simply customers. "Whenever you can get someone to do a detail into this world from the program area, that has huge benefits," she said. "When they're immersed in it, it really gives them insights they did not have before. Then when they go back, they're able to evangelize for you."

And yet another explained how he tried to take the opposite approach from "we know how to do this." His team picks "a pilot project that's pretty low visibility that nobody was really interested in before and just say, 'We're going to democratize this. Do you want to come be a part of the team?'"

A participant from an agency that has been more aggressive in importing talent, however, argued that the training that Schedule A appointees are providing to career staff could have the most lasting impact.

"We've brought outside folks in," he said. "Most of them are Silicon Valley. They're all smart, whippersnappery and don't wear the suits.... To some extent, the answer isn't internal, it's external. There's got to be a way in which you can take that knowledge and transfer it."

And because there are only so many Silicon Valley whippersnappers, several participants said they were still learning how best to use contractors. "How do you build a team that's just big enough on the government side and then supplement it with the contract side?" one asked. "We're still looking for that, and it's really, really tough."

One participant with both industry and government experience said, "There's still reticence to having meaningful acquisition planning conversations about what's practical and feasible and get buy‑in around those customer needs early."

"That's something that really needs to be baked in," she added, "so that we don't go back to those prehistoric days of having this wall that makes it really hard to have user‑focused procurement around outcomes rather than around restrictive requirements."

And although effective use of contractors requires government employees who can see the big picture and steer things accordingly, some in the group expressed concern that digitally inclined generalists will be in short supply for the foreseeable future.

"It's really, really, really hard for young people to get into government, and it's really hard if you are not a specialist," one of the younger participants said. "We need more generalists or specialists who have at least some familiarity with other fields. Nothing is changing on the HR front to enable that transition."

Funding? What funding?

Very little discussion was devoted to the idea of building bigger digital services teams because few agencies see significant dedicated funding on the horizon.

"Congress in their infinite wisdom decided to zero out our request for a digital services team," one participant said. "They did a 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge, we'll plus up some of the other areas,' but the idea that we have a central team to do things" never happened.

Another said his agency had reorganized IT to create a centralized digital services team, but "I'm not sure there's any additional budget given to any of it," which limits the team members' ability to truly act as "transformation agents within our agency."

The group had a similarly skeptical view of the $3.1 billion IT Modernization Fund that Obama proposed in his fiscal 2017 budget. Such a revolving fund would be tremendously helpful, participants said, but it does not warrant serious consideration when Congress seems so unlikely to consider it.

And even if alternative funding models could be devised, one speaker said, "we still need to be able to make that initial investment. Who goes first? How do you decide?"

Locking in digital

Absent new funding streams, the group agreed that digital services teams will need to earn reallocations by proving their value to agency leaders and mission owners. The trick is finding a way to demonstrate when the customer is truly satisfied.

"I know in our agency not enough people are seeing the results of the work we're doing," one participant said, wishing aloud for a "meaningful" dashboard that could appear on every agency leader's phone each morning. "And when I say 'meaningful,' I mean relevant to what they work on, their program -- not the overall program, but theirs."

Others are taking their own direct communications approaches. Noting the number of dashboards and reports that never get opened, one executive said her agency had begun sharing voice‑of‑the‑customer snippets "on the elevator monitors in our office." Another agency posts them in bathroom stalls.

Such sharing is a start, one participant said, but customer metrics must also be factored into the performance evaluations of agency leaders. That's the only way to ensure "it permeates the rest of the organization," he said, "so that we are thinking across our organizational boundaries around the customer."

Metrics and communication are only part of the package needed to secure digital services' future, however. Participants acknowledged that they feel pressured to institutionalize those practices before Obama leaves office.

"I've been in it for five years," one executive said. "I'm pretty damn proud of what I've built. I don't want the next team to dismantle it."

"No matter who gets elected in November, the next president is not going to support this work as much as President Obama does," another said. "We can't rely on that level of air cover going forward. We have to actually change the underlying structures and policies." Training contracting officers is particularly important, he added.

"We've got to build a team that has been taught to fish by the time we're ready to go," another participant agreed. "We're just not quite there yet."

And although policy changes can be slow in coming -- multiple participants said they'd been trying without success to update certain web policies for more than a decade -- there was at least cautious optimism that larger forces would keep digital services on the front burner in 2017 and beyond.

"The public's expectations have dramatically shifted," one participant said, and the government will have no choice but to try to meet them.

Another executive agreed and put forth the goal of enabling people to order a green card, passport or similar government document as easily as they can order a pizza for delivery. "All of us around the table would high-five and drink until we were on the floor if we could get our agency to do that," he added.

Yet such a system would simply meet expectations for many Americans, he added. "Well, of course I can order a pepperoni and olive pizza delivered. Why couldn't I fill out a form on my phone?"

The group noted that critical mass is growing inside agencies as well. Although centralized teams might still be rare, one said, the real community of digital services advocates -- and the increasingly interoperable tools that allow them to share -- makes this different from previous attempts.

Another cited recognition at the highest levels that digital services cannot be tackled by IT teams alone and the commitment to working with the other stakeholders.

"When we talk about transformation for digital, we're talking about something that has to be a whole-agency effort," that executive said. "If the [chief information security officer] isn't on board, you're not going to get it done. If the chief acquisition officer isn't on board, you're not going to get it done. If the [chief human capital officer] isn't on board, you're not going to get it done, at least not all the way. This is as much about changing how government's served as it is about tech now."

Discussion participants

Alexis Bonnell, Division Chief of Applied Innovation and Acceleration, U.S. Global Development Lab, U.S. Agency for International Development

Abigail Bowman, Deputy Director of Digital Engagement,Commerce Department

Don Buskard, Chief Enterprise Architect,Transportation Department

Nicole Callahan, New Media Analyst, Education Department

Kathy Conrad, Director, Digital Government,Accenture Federal Services,and Former Principal Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, General Services Administration 

Sarah Crane, Director,, General Services Administration

Nora Dempsey, Senior Adviser for Innovation, State Department

James Hammond, Director, Online Engagement, Operations and Media, IRS

Michael Hillard, Branch Chief, Environmental Protection Agency

Eric Hysen, Digital Services Executive Director, Department of Homeland Security

Mike Kruger, Deputy Director of Public Affairs and Director of Digital Engagement, Commerce Department

Mary Ann Monroe, Director, Customer Experience, General Services Administration

Rusty Pickens, Senior Adviser for Digital Platforms, State Department

Bridget Roddy, Program Manager, Virtual Student Foreign Service, State Department

Jeannie Shiffer, Associate Director for Communications, Census Bureau

Aaron Snow, Executive Director, 18F, and Deputy Commissioner, Technology Transformation Service, General Services Administration

William Trefzger, Deputy Director, Digital Communications Division,Department of Health and Human Services

Lisa Wolfisch, Deputy Director, Center for New Media and Promotion, Census Bureau

Loren Yu, Head of Product Development, Nava, and former member of rescue team

Chris Zinner, Managing Director, Accenture Federal Services

Note: Accenture Federal Services sponsored the roundtable gathering. The discussion was led by FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider and 1105 Public Sector Media Group Chief Content Officer Anne A. Armstrong. The recap on these pages is strictly an editorial product. Neither Accenture nor any of the roundtable participants had input beyond their May 10 comments.