Think holistically about what digital services teams represent to government, report says

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In the government move toward IT innovation, agencies and policymakers need to do more to support digital service teams, a new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government says.

“What is missing in the current conversation about moving to a digital government is how these systemic problems need to be tackled beyond the individual project level and that the strategy needs to shift from digitizing existing processes to fundamentally rethinking and transforming business processes,” states the report authored by Ines Mergel, a professor at Germany’s University of Konstanz.

Digital service teams, like the U.S. Digital Service and 18F established after the failed launch of HealthCare.gov in 2013, are designed to employ IT talent from the private sector to execute initiatives that will bring the public sector up to speed with human-centered design and agile innovation management.

But those teams alone, as well as their collaborations with IT officials, are not enough to bring about the greater potential of a digital transformation, the report argues.

“[S]uccessful digital transformation is dependent on systemic changes beyond the scope of CTOs and CIOs—such as personnel and acquisition policy changes—to encourage activities that support the ultimate outcome: transformation,” Mergel’s report says. Additionally, “It is important to actively engage non-technical leaders in the use of agile leadership methods and empower the entire organization, including contract managers, internal clients, and external clients, to engage in human-centered design efforts using agile methods.”

The report encourages policymakers and other agency leaders to take steps in:

  • Aligning the priority of digital transformation with other mission-driven national and agency-level priorities.
  • Addressing the legacy IT problems of the federal government.
  • Scaling up digital service team activities where they demonstrate value.
  • Expanding agencies’ authority to use innovative personnel tools to bring IT talent into government.
  • Adopting a new approach towards third-party service providers that reduces procedural acquisition burdens in favor of demonstrated capacity to deliver results.

Elsewhere, the report identifies several challenges, including funding shortfalls, competition for talent, roadblocks to embracing agility in development and complicated acquisition processes.

Based on those findings, the report recommends that agencies creating digital service teams should:

  • Understand that digital transformation in government is not a “software problem,” but requires a holistic and strategic approach.
  • Use “outside-the-box” thinking to infuse innovation into acquisition strategies.
  • Phase-in the use of new cost models to support digital services “start-up” teams.
  • Include non-technical government employees as part of digital services teams.
  • Challenge perceptions that “innovation can’t happen here,” given existing regulatory and cultural constraints.
  • Enlist facilitative leaders to champion digital transformation.
  • Promote greater collaboration among digital service teams and agency IT stakeholders.

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digital government, digital service teams, IBM, IBM Center for the Business of Government