Happy New Year: A conversation with Digital Services Georgia🍑🎊

USDS Administrator Matt Cutts sat down with the State of Georgia’s Chief Digital Officer, Nikhil Deshpande for a conversation about the Peach State’s digital service team.

Ringing in the New Year, this post is the first in our series, “Digital Services Around the World.”

1. How did Digital Services Georgia get started?

The state of Georgia has a distributed ownership model for services. Each agency that offers a service decides how it develops and maintains it. At the same time, we have a centralized web delivery platform and we see the benefits of a team that works with multiple state agencies in ways where we have visibility around common challenges and opportunities that help the enterprise.

Before I became Chief Digital Officer, I served as Director of Web Services. During that time, we were exploring a similar centralized model to influence transactional application experience, so the citizen journey stays consistent when switching from web to the transactional apps layer. The catalyst was Jen Pahlka’s post in 2016, The CIO Problem, Part 1 which talked about the concept and benefits of a Digital Services team.

Kendra Skeene and I decided to work on a digital services model for the State of Georgia’s ecosystem. Existing examples like GOV.UK and USDS helped us refine a model that proposed a matured service delivery starting with the information layer, and ending with enhancing the transactional layer. Our ultimate goal was to create better experiences for Georgia residents interacting with the government through modern design and technology.

We began pitching this idea to our state CIO and leadership team in April 2017. After several phases and iterations, Digital Services Georgia (DSGa) was born!

Nikhil (left) and the DSGa team.

2. What is your team’s primary focus? How do you work with other state government offices? What is a recent success or product launch you’re particularly proud of?

As the Office of Digital Services, we have three primary goals:

Drive people-centric digital solutions: The DSGa team works with state agencies to plan, design, and deliver information and services in a way that is easy for Georgians to access. We rely on external development partners for code development, hosting, and support but it is DSGa’s responsibility to make sure we build people-centric digital experiences based on our principles and development standards.

Build capacity within the state workforce to deliver digital solutions: It is critical to adapt to modern solutions and skills as the technology landscape changes. DSGa’s outreach and training teams focus on skill-building to enhance skills within the existing state workforce. We created an education track to keep our 900+ stakeholders up to speed on digital standards and UX and product delivery best practices.

Consult with agencies: The DSGa team is comprised of digital strategists, engineers, designers, and content specialists. We consult with state agencies to strategize and prioritize relevant solutions. We follow a problem-first, product-based approach that helps agencies understand the boundaries between products and services.

Earlier this year we launched GovHub, an enterprise digital platform that hosts 90+ state agency and elected official websites and manages hundreds of thousands of content items. Based on constituents’ usage patterns, we created modern content types for content managers to publish their information.

By structuring content into pre-designed content types, information becomes fluid and moves easily between multiple outlets and channels. Key content items are curated and shared on Georgia.gov without needing to duplicate or recreate that content for the central portal. GovHub allows agencies to manage their content but also helps the DSGa team to work with agency teams on applications that are part of a citizen journey.

4. What advice or lessons learned can you offer technologists who are interested in creating state or local digital service teams?

“It matters where you are placed within the organization and how empowered you are to influence other agencies to collaborate with you…”

Find your vantage point: Every state or local setup is different so the key thing I recommend is to identify the vantage point of impact. I’ve seen a variety of models: digital services teams functioning as their own agency or attached to the office of the CIO, department of budget or treasury, or department of IT. It matters where you are placed within the organization and how empowered you are to influence other agencies to collaborate with you and leverage your expertise. If you are not appropriated by tax revenue and rely on charging for your services, you will need the tailwinds of the political cover that supports you.

“…organizations, processes, and policies need to be invisible for our end users. It’s all about making tasks easy and efficient.”

It’s not about technology or organizations: Digital transformation is about culture. Government organizations tend to structure their digital presence to match their organizational structure. It is our job to change this mindset and instill the idea that organizations, processes, and policies need to be invisible for our end users. It’s all about making tasks easy and efficient.

Work in the open: There isn’t a global or national blueprint for how digital services teams work, so it is important to be agile and adaptable to your organizational landscape. Connect with other digital services teams and share what you do. Maintain a team blog and share and collaborate on ideas. Sharing and choosing common approaches help us scale digital solutions, best practices, and tools faster and in an effective manner.

Test and iterate: Test and iterate as often as you can and test using real test subjects. Establish partnerships with other organizations where you can access test subjects. Don’t be afraid to politely request people to participate while they may be waiting for their turn at the DMV or other offices. These are great opportunities to do micro testing and short user feedback sessions.

Lean on open source: Use open source tools when possible instead of expensive proprietary solutions. You’ll be a good steward of public funds. Contribute your efforts and projects back to the open source community so other organizations benefit from your work.

Build an effective team: Building a good team is hard work and it takes patience. This is particularly true at the state and local level where you compete with the private sector. Select team members who are passionate about serving and care about making an impact.

4. How did you become Georgia’s Chief Digital Officer? What was your prior experience working with government?

In my previous role as the director of web services, I had led the transition of the state’s enterprise web platform from a proprietary CMS to a modern, secure, and accessible open source solution. I am a fierce advocate of web accessibility and spearheaded the creation of a state standard that required state digital properties to adhere to Section 508 and WCAG 2.0. Of course, this would not be possible without the support of my amazing DSGa team and trusted design and development partners. I am a UX and interaction designer by trade and have previously worked in advertising, training, and education before working with the government. Usability testing and iterative design has been my mantra since my advertising days. As someone who modeled and proposed the plan for the Office of Digital Services, our state leadership trusted me to lead the office.

5. What was something you expected but found not to be true? What about something you didn’t expect? How did these lessons influence the direction of your work?

When proposing the charter for the office, I had worked on a specific road map for the first 3 years. Fortunately, I haven’t had any reason to pivot. Our leadership stays firm in their support of digital services and citizen experience. As we tread the waters, we will face unexpected situations that will help me and my team grow.

6. It’s no secret that working in government can be challenging. Why did you choose to continue working in public service?

Public service gives me a sense of accomplishment that I didn’t feel otherwise. To be able to directly influence a change, to try and make life easier for someone, and see the outcome is rewarding. I have an extraordinary team and am lucky to be surrounded by purpose driven, passionate, and supporting colleagues I respect and enjoy working with. This makes the challenging part of working in government manageable.

7. How has your experience leading the Digital Services Georgia impacted your career path?

Leading DSGa has helped me grow my leadership abilities. I always considered looking at the bigger picture but leading DSGa taught me to fly at 60,000 feet but also, when needed, to dive down to the ground level. I have been fortunate to share my lessons learned and speak about the work we are doing at conferences and webinars. I speak on a variety of topics from strategic planning, design, to technical implementation. I have met and learned from some outstanding individuals and teams as part of this role of evangelizing citizen driven services.

8. For folks who may be interested in getting involved with your work, are you hiring? Who is eligible to apply? How can they learn more and get involved?

We are always looking for good talent to add to the team. Currently, I am expanding our product team and looking for product managers. Product thinking is relatively new within our state and I am hoping to build a team that works with state agencies to build mature products to deliver citizen services. We require applicants to be a legal U.S. resident and be available to work at our Atlanta office.

Those interested in getting involved with DSGa should check out our careers page: https://digitalservices.georgia.gov/careers

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If you have questions regarding employment with the U.S. Digital Service, please contact us at usds@omb.eop.gov or visit our Hiring FAQ.

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