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Commentary: High Aspirations and Expectations for 'Golden State Dot-Gov'

Innovation is great and necessary, but Luke Fretwell contends that the state of California should first focus on deliverables. Some steps: Establish a single state government domain, name a chief executive for the state Department of Technology, and establish guidelines to determine when an out-of-control IT project needs to be shut down.

This commentary was republished with permission from GovFresh, which "features the innovators and ideas changing the way government works." GovFresh was founded by Luke Fretwell in May 2009. The commentary was lightly edited for style and brevity. 

California is on the cusp of ushering in a new era of government digital services, one that our elected leaders can finally align, prioritize and execute on, and prove to the people of the Golden State that our representatives are ready to innovate just as other industries here have done.

The future of the digital government services we deserve is in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature, who now must work together and execute on a holistic, forward-thinking plan, with both having a strong understanding and commitment to what this means, so that there’s little confusion as to how it will work.

Newsom himself authored a book focused on digital public service and the scalable, impactful power of civic technology. He has championed modern technologies  —  from open standards to software-as-a-service  —  throughout his political career. We have a governor who gets digital and technology better than anyone previous, and perhaps more so than any other governor in the United States.

This, coupled with the Legislature’s understandable frustrations with recurring, failed billion-dollar technology projects  —  and many poorly executed million-dollar ones  —  offers the perfect storm to propel us toward the digital change we need.

Newsom has proposed a new Office of Digital Innovation as part of the state’s 2019–20 budget, with initial startup costs of $36.2 million and 50 positions. The proposal also includes an innovation academy and $20 million innovation fund.

When the official budget is approved in June, we’ll know better what type of commitment will be made to this effort and how far forward-thinking California  —  a state that prides itself on technology innovation  —  will “think different.”

This first $56 million is the seed money we need to create the scalable digital revolution that will change California government services for the better, forever.

Built on my recent research on digital government services as well as the book Digital Transformation at Scale, here are thoughts on how we get there.

Distinguishing digital

There is typically confusion as to the difference between digital and technology. While digital leverages technology, digital is not purely a technology function. Digital is a scalable, sustainable approach to serving people online.

Government technology departments at their core should focus on setting a directive that provides governance and guidelines to all agencies. They also should procure and manage general, multi-use software and platforms at licenses and costs that financially benefit the state. Their core function ensures there is an exponential approach to how the state is leveraging technology, be it bespoke, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) or a combination of both.

While an important one, technology is just one component of digital government service delivery.

Digital, on the other hand, as elegantly defined by the Canadian Digital Service, is “helping government design and build better services.”

Generally, government service delivery includes:

  • Providing better online user experiences
  • Leveraging modern technologies
  • Deploying iterative project management practices
  • Fixing procurement
  • Recruiting and hiring great people
Digital government organizations that have emerged over the past decade at the state and local level nationally include San Francisco Digital Services, Boston Digital, NYC Planning Labs, California Child Welfare Digital Services, Digital Services Georgia and Massachusetts Digital Service, to name just a few.

It’s important for government leaders  —  particularly elected officials responsible for budget allocation  —  to distinguish between digital and technology, so as to not confuse past IT failures and building a future digital government strategy. Our government leaders must understand that the former has often occurred because the lack of the latter.

Exponential digital

In today’s age, knowledge and technology scale and can be deployed and accessed faster and more cheaply than ever before. Examples of this include Wikipedia (billions of page views per month), WordPress (powers 26 percent of the Web) and “the cloud.” These technologies have grown in usage because of an open, exponential mindset, the same one the government of today must have. As do technology entrepreneurs, our public-sector leaders must ask this question when thinking exponential government: “How do we serve the most people as efficiently and effectively and resourcefully as possible?”

Incremental government service delivery is the status quo approach responsible for government technology failures in California and globally. Those failures are rooted in a lack of standards or a technology directive that provides guidance as to how all systems should operate.

California government leaders must “think exponential,” enforcing standards and guidance rooted in open and platform-based standards and technologies that empower state public servants to do their jobs the way they intend. Exponential questions state leaders should ask about every digital or technology initiative:

  • How does it build a more unified, elegant experience for the people of California?
  • How does this scale to other agencies?
  • How will it save money for the state of California?

Example digital

The United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service was founded in 2011. By 2013, it had 200 employees. Today, it has more than 850, all managing delivery, guidance, a marketplace and multiple platforms and products that uniformly serve the people of the UK.

Its genesis came from a 2010 report, Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution, that advocated for bold recommendations, including a unified digital presence, a designated team with “absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.”

It also recommended a “CEO for Digital … absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APls) and the power to direct all government online spending.”

It has become the blueprint for how governments can elegantly and exponentially execute digital services holistically and sustainably. It has brought respect and pride to the work of public service not just in the UK, but globally.

The GDS birth and evolution, including lessons learned and recommendations for how to build a government digital service elsewhere, are well-documented in Digital Transformation at Scale, written by four of its founders and former executive, design and technology leaders. It is a must-read for every public service employee anywhere.

Mandatory digital

Exponential digital will require aspirational and bold leadership from Newsom and the Legislature, some of which may not be popular with status quo thinkers. Following successful digital execution in the UK, California should learn from this and make these tough choices for the sake of the people and the future of state public service.

Pause ‘innovation’

The word "innovation" and general concept evoke a sentiment that those involved with it will not be focused on meaningful, concrete deliverables. The proposed Office of Digital Innovation should be renamed to emphasize actual service delivery and not transcendental technology endeavors that do not involve solving real problems right now. This new organization needs to be taken seriously from the start, and naming it based on function is as important for optics as it is for internal focus.

As the GDS founders and former leaders write in Digital Transformation at Scale, “No innovation until things work.“

The proposed organization should be named Digital California, California Digital Services, or something similar that indicates deliverables at scale is its primary focus.

Appoint an empowered chief digital officer (and Internet-era CTO)

Digital California needs a senior-level executive that holds rank with other cabinet officials and has a mandate to lead comprehensive digital services into the future. If this person is third-tier on the organizational chart, Digital California won’t have the political, financial or administrative authority to effectively execute and will potentially devolve into an incremental organization.

The time has also come for an Internet-era chief technology officer who either works within Digital California or as the chief executive of the California Department of Technology. California must have a leader with bona fide IT experience and proven leadership — one who deeply understands and deploys technology on multiple fronts to establish a proactive technology directive, as well as better vet current projects.

One domain, one directive

California must move all Web operations to its primary domain,, and begin consolidating all websites and transactions into a “One California” user experience. The single domain approach must include a service manualdesign principlesservice standard and digital strategy, aligning digital direction forward, much like the technology directive will for IT.

In collaboration with Digital California, CDT must develop a technology directive that outlines standards, governance and guidelines for implementing and managing technology used by the state. In 2018, Canada published its Directive on Management of Information Technology, and it’s a blueprint for how California should proceed. Notable components of the directive include:

  • Use open standards and solutions by default
  • Maximize reuse
  • Enable interoperability
  • Use cloud first
  • Design for performance, availability and scalability
  • Design for security and privacy
California has yet to deliver proactive technology leadership such as Canada’s, and it’s imperative going forward that it does. Having a coherent, holistic framework for how the state procures and manages its relationship with technology  —  whether bespoke or through third-party software and platform services  —  is a requisite for the health of future California IT projects and digital delivery.

Control spending or shut it down

California should never again have to experience billion-dollar IT failures. As the UK government did, there must be spending controls that limit the lifetime value of an IT contract. In the UK’s case, it was $100 million.

As the authors of Digital Transformation at Scale write: “Any large organization with growing IT costs needs to recognize that it is running against market trends; the cost of established technology is falling, and the last thing an organization needs is to buy even more of it. If you want the same outcomes for your business, your IT should get cheaper. If you want outcomes that improve at the same rate as technology evolves, the costs should stay broadly the same. And if you want to be at the bleeding edge, you should make very sure you are making a wise investment.”

Digital California should establish an assessment team to determine whether projects should be dissolved before they turn into epic failures. Based on objective standards and knowledge of delivery and technology, this team should be empowered to shutter any project that isn’t meeting its intended service objective.

Again, as the authors of Digital Transformation at Scale write: “Those responsible for making decisions over the wisdom of a technology investment or digital service should be people who deeply understand technology or who have built digital services. This sounds obvious, but is often not the case. Rather than clever generalists looking at forms, appraisals and assessments were led by multidisciplinary panels of specialists experts unafraid of putting a few noses out of joint, not generalists with one eye on their career.”

Measure and publish progress

Digital California must continuously be open about its progress, from delivery status to fiscal impact. There should be reporting that highlights, in the context of digital, how it’s answering the three questions posed earlier:

  • How is it building a more unified, elegant experience for the people of California?
  • How is it scaling to other agencies?
  • How is it saving money for the state of California?
The UK does this with its performance dashboard and Digital Efficiency Report. The U.S. Digital Service does this in an annual report to Congress.

In 2017, USDS reported to Congress that “over a five-year period, we project our current projects will save $617 million and redirect 1,475 labor years toward higher-value work.”

Digital California should provide both a performance dashboard and annual report, in context of deliverables and financial savings, so that progress can be regularly monitored, shared and celebrated. This will ensure there is ongoing insight into progress and less of a potential for failure in the context we’ve seen in the past.

As we’ve seen with GDS and USDS, California’s potential for financial savings alone is exponential. A deeper dive into the UK’s performance dashboard shows equal opportunity for delivering and scaling public digital services.

Onward digital

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California raised the bar on digital leadership last week, proposing the Digital Service Act that would allocate increased funding and support to USDS and state and local governments.

“We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century,” said Harris. “The Digital Service Act will help harness top talent for the government, save taxpayer dollars, and put the power of technology to work on behalf of the American people.”

As the largest state in America with the fifth-largest economy in the world (larger than the UK), California must take the opportunity it has before us and execute a bold approach by making a GDS-like investment in its digital future. For elected officials who represent innovative constituents and organizations across many industries, doing the same for government is a no-brainer.

As our governor and Legislature work to determine the future of the California public services, its people are counting on high aspirations and great courage to lead them into the digital future.

Luke Fretwell is co-founder and chief executive officer of ProudCity and the founder of the civic innovation and technology blog GovFresh. He advises civic leaders and businesses on how to best leverage digital strategies to create more effective, collaborative governments. He has worked with a number of government-focused companies and media and has been involved in broad-focused community efforts, such as GovPress, CityCamp, CivicMeet, Agile Government Leadership and Open Source for America.