We are curating a new monthly series on Digital Gov in developing countries seeking fresh perspectives and insights into the policy, institutional, and technical dimensions of using technology and public management to make services work for businesses and citizens.
Over a cup of tea, on a January afternoon of freezing rain, Emily, who works on Digital for the US Government, and I met to exchange perspectives on what it takes for governments to get digital right. Although our contexts are vastly different, we agreed that there remain similar pain points in the developed and developing world. In the first edition of the Digital Gov. blog, we consider factors common to good digital service delivery.
Defining the digital service opportunity
Digital is increasingly the way citizens interact with government. From submitting passport applications to paying parking tickets, prior in-person interactions are now occurring online. While governments and public institutions recognize the value of digital technology, they still grapple with its implications for governance. Digital Gov. includes digital for broader state modernization to create efficiencies and process improvements; enabling ease of transparency and the push for accountability, including the "open government data" movement and citizen engagement; and bringing services closer to, and providing value to citizens.
A digital interface is only the first piece of a bigger service delivery process—one that occurs offline in government offices where transactions are processed, decisions are made, and services are distributed. The digital experience is the front door. It’s what’s behind the door that really changes the lives of people and communities.
Governments are often hampered by their own rules and regulations, a lack of internal digital capacity, and problematic procurement processes—all adding up to bad design and bad user experiences for citizens.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. While change can’t happen overnight, there are a few things governments can do to better position their institutions to better deliver services to citizens.
1. Adopt a Culture of Service
Governments often have good intentions, and valuable products and services to offer citizens but engaging with services can be frustrating. Interfaces are often archaic, confusing, inefficient, and rarely built with the user or context in mind.
Good intentions can be lost in a sea of bureaucracy, where decisions are made for the wrong reasons and simplicity is trumped by paperwork and politics. If governments are serious about getting digital right they need to adopt a culture of service—one that makes the citizen, or the needs of the citizen, priority number one. It means creating a process and system optimized to understand the citizen’s needs and context, and address them efficiently, effectively, in a way that builds trust between the state and the citizen.
2. Commit to user-centered design.
Design thinking is solving complex problems through empathy, creativity, and context —everything from roads and bridges to policies and programs are designed through “human artifice and imagining” for a purpose, “to change existing situations into preferred ones” (Herbert Simon, Sciences of the Artificial , 1969).
User-centered design is a multi-disciplinary approach to solving the needs and problems of the end-user (the citizen) and the government’s capabilities for transformation. Governments need to take this approach — to ensure what is created is useful to, and usable by, your customer/citizen/user.
*Take a look at IDEO’s HCD Toolkit , Stanford’s D-School on Rebooting Government  and Frog Design’s partnership with UNICEF .
3. Hire the Right People.
Yes, the public sector can move slowly, mired by red tape. But this should not excuse bad design or unusable products—it should serve as an impetus to invest in people well versed in digital approaches to regulated industries, policy, and governance. Governments need to staff for their digital needs. There is a disconcerting assumption that creativity does not play well with government. This could not be farther from the truth—the public sector is in dire need of designers, developers, and digital strategists who can design and build with an intimate understanding of the organization, while creating institutional knowledge and sustainability. It’s an investment in a modern and agile institution with citizen-focused products and services.
More than ever, there is space for creative talent in the public sector. A few examples: The Presidential Innovation Fellows Program  (U.S.), Government Design Service Manual  (U.K.), Code for America  (U.S.), President’s Delivery Unit  (Indonesia).
4. Rethink the Approach to Big Bang Implementations
The Healthcare.gov muddle should not have come as a surprise. Anyone who has attempted to build a digital product within a large bureaucracy has more than likely seen Healthcare.gov unfold on a smaller public scale. Big bang implementations of large and complex transactions management systems have diverse stakeholders; take time, financing, and rigorous testing. Even then, many projects create noise, are late, over-budget, and poorly received by users (Standish Group, 2014 ). In contrast, millions of web-consumers hear little noise around software from Google, Amazon, or Facebook.
Governments tend to follow the big-bang or “waterfall model” (Royce, 1970 ) of software development. Requirements and timelines are specified up front and vendors are selected to implement the “solution” based on cost and quality. But organizations and people are dynamic and as a consequence, requirements and priorities evolve. Product testing in the waterfall model happens at the end. At that point, little time can be spent testing an exhaustive list of scenarios. Some bloggers (see Clay Johnson , Lydia Depillis ) argue that incremental software development methodologies such as “Agile ” (Kent Beck et al., The Agile Manifesto, 2001) and “Scrum ” (HBR, 1986) may be used to break down complex programs into smaller simpler goals. Testing is iterative throughout development and shouldn’t occur at the very end. But this involves a change in the way requirements are specified and contracted. Moreover, it necessitates a culture change within government – a big task in itself.
Implementation processes and regulations need to account for flexibility, agile development, and iteration when building complex websites or software. This is clearly an area where we need more research and evidence to understand what works, under what conditions, and why.
5. Prioritize Competitive Procurement
“Procurement policies are optimized around acquiring a hammer from Hammer Inc. rather than identifying the most effective solution for affixing a nail, which might come from an unexpected and nontraditional source”, says Beth Noveck*. More often than not, the companies with the best creative and engineering talent for innovation, web design, development, APIs , and mobile are in emerging agile companies. They are too small or too new to bid for large government contracts. If the public sector wants a digital presence that is up to industry standards, there must be a way to procure the right company (or product)—not the easiest one that is already part of the system.
Furthermore, there is little public information or accountability for the performance of the companies (or products) already in public sector systems. As a result, companies or products with poor track-records continue to be hired. This is one of the many reasons Open Government Procurement and Contracting  initiatives are important. They shine a light on repeat contracts, sizes, successes and failures, especially in digital projects.
*See NYU Wagner Capstone World Bank project on Innovative Procurement 
6. Approach Contracts as partnerships.
A contractor should be more than an extra set of hands when building a digital product for citizens—they should also feel ownership for it. Creating a winning solution is more than checking boxes on a deliverable schedule. It’s creating something usable and useful that can help the institution/project/team reach their goals to make a positive impact in the lives of people and communities. Often, contractors feel detached from the process, allowing them to blame the client for poor direction or management, and allowing the client to blame the contractor for failure. Contracts should be defined to operate as public-private partnerships and share accountability for delivering public services.
Do you know of successful public-private partnerships in the digital government space? We’d love to hear from you.
7. Get past the hype.
There is a lot of digital hype out there – mobile, gamification , cloud, internet-of-things . We all know there’s no silver-bullet when it comes to addressing the complex problems governments around the world are attempting to address. So let’s stop treating technology as a silver bullet. Digital approaches must be used to solve problems, not pose as solutions looking for a problem. If we are committed to improving the lives of citizens with usable and useful solutions, then we should be ready to invest the time and resources required to do it right. Digital must emphasize the citizen and the state.
Developing countries have an opportunity here – to learn from the mistakes of entrenched IT and procurement systems of developed countries, and leap-frog straight to user-centered digital governance.
It won’t be easy. But it is feasible. What it requires is an internal commitment to user-centered design thinking and a culture of service, investing in the right people, ensuring that back-end systems are up to industry standards, reframing contractual relationships as partnerships, and focusing on what works rather than buying into the hype. Remember, design is a form of problem-solving, and if we want to find lasting solutions we must commit to doing what it takes to design the right solutions.
We have only scratched the surface with these 7 factors, and will continue to explore these issues and more in this blog series.
Share your thoughts with us. Do you know of successful (or failed) applications of the recommendations listed above? Leave us a comment below.