Introducing the Colorado Digital Service 🌄

How one alumnus founded a digital service in his home state after a tour-of-duty in DC.

Many join the U.S. Digital Service after spending some time in the tech industry. After serving a tour-of-duty in DC, some get hooked on the mission of civic tech and the massive impact we can have on millions of Americans. It can be hard to go back to driving the bottom line at a company.

After a two-year tour in DC, Kelly Taylor returned to his home state and founded the Colorado Digital Service with Governor Jared Polis. Modeled after USDS, CDS embeds talented engineers, designers, and product managers alongside civil servants to improve services millions of Coloradans use every day.

USDS Administrator Matt Cutts had a chance to catch up with Kelly about his time at USDS and future plans leading the Colorado Digital Service.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis announcing the Colorado Digital Service in October 2019.

During your time at USDS you served primarily on the team at the Department of Health and Human Services. What would you say drew you to that work? What are you most proud of during your time in DC?

In the spring of 2016 I had a conversation with Susannah Fox about AI, Healthcare and Aneesh Chopra’s book “The Innovative State.” We talked about the intersection of government, technology and healthcare and the impact engineers, designers and product managers can make. I was inspired. She told me about the U.S. Digital Service and I applied that same day.

I was building APIs for IBM Watson Health in regulated environments and working with developer relations teams. At the U.S. Digital Service, I joined the Health and Human Services team because of my healthcare background and spent my time working on projects at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). My favorite project and the one with the most impact was Blue Button 2.0, an API that enabled Medicare beneficiaries to connect their healthcare claims information to research apps, electronic medical record systems, personal health record apps and more. Driving adoption of the API through a simple developer experience and an active developer forum was key to success. This is very similar to the work I had been doing in the private sector so, I was drawn to the project and comfortable leading the effort.

Kelly behind the scenes of the launch video embedded above.

Prior to USDS, what was your experience working with government? 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?

I had zero experience working with government. I’ve never worked for any government agency or had any government clients.

Coming in, I expected to meet a group of software engineers, designers and product managers that were under-resourced and maybe not as up-to-date with modern practices as I expected but generally cranking away doing a good job.

What I found was a single (awesome) software engineer, product management not being a thing at all and a single graphic designer working mostly on marketing collateral on the CMS team. Everyone else from technical architects to software engineers worked for vendors that had won contracts to do pieces of work. That really surprised me.

If the government team wasn’t made up of product managers, designers and developers that had a lifetime experience delivering products for users, how could they successfully lead and direct others to deliver?

It seemed like most technical and delivery expertise had been outsourced to vendors and the main function of the government was only to write and execute on policy.

What is the Colorado Digital Service and why was it created?

The Colorado Digital Service (CDS) is a new team launched (see the Gov’s tweet) in October 2019 by Governor Jared Polis within the Governor’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). Modeled after the U.S. Digital Service, CDS hires top technologists from diverse backgrounds into full-time, term-limited “tours of civic service,” bringing their expertise to help improve the services that millions of Coloradans use. These small teams of senior engineers, designers, and product managers work alongside dedicated civil servants in state agencies to develop user-centered solutions to Colorado’s most pressing technical challenges.

Now you’ve been tapped to lead the Colorado Digital Service. What is your primary focus as the Director?

As the Director, I am very much a player/coach leading product management efforts advocating for a stronger product management practice within agencies while also scrubbing in on projects.

Building a strong talent pipeline for Governor Polis is also a focus. Matthew McAllister, co-founder of the Colorado Digital Service, talks about a phrase former Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Tom Kalil used to say, “just add talent.”

It’s so true. We have been very intentional about creating this new talent pipeline for the state that prioritizes diversity and represents all Coloradans.

Are there any lessons learned from your time with USDS and federal government service you’ll take with you to the state?

Prior to USDS, I knew nothing about procurement or policy-making. One of my first experiences in DC was taking a walk with my teammate Natalie. She asked my opinion about the words “application programming interface” being included in the 21st Century Cures Act.

I had absolutely no idea what policy she was talking about. Over that first year at USDS, I relearned a lot about how our government works from how a bill becomes a law (seriously) to understanding how policy and regulations are created.

Natalie and I ended up recording an episode of This is Product Management with Mike Fishbein about the intersection of policy and product management and wrote this blog post.

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

Co-founding PivotDesk years ago, working at a massive company like IBM and getting things done in government all have their unique pain. I would argue you see more bureaucracy in big companies than in government sometimes.

Being focused on delivering for citizens and having the satisfaction of helping the country or state you love is powerful and has kept me in government.

Working in government has also brought a whole new set of challenges such as policy making, budget cycles, politics, perverse incentives and more that I find super rewarding to learn and work on.

The scale of impact in government is also unique. Working on things that impact millions of people is the norm.

New CDSers pose with Governor Polis. The team is at 5 now, and growing!

How did the Colorado Digital Service get started?

During my time in DC and through my work at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, I was having conversations with awesome folks working on healthcare policy and technology in Colorado. Telling them about the U.S. Digital Service led to more and more conversations with others across the state government and momentum started to build for a state digital service in Colorado.

I was certainly building on the work of others. I remember one conversation with then Governor Hickenlooper at the Aspen Institute about a possible Colorado Digital Service. He said “Yep, Megan Smith was talking to me about this last year, it’s a great idea!”

A few weeks later I bumped into Megan at an Axios event in DC and gave her a quick update. She connected me with Matthew McAllister whom she had worked with for years in the White House during her tenure as U.S. Chief Technology Officer. Matthew had just moved back to Denver and was saying all of the same things I was.

The early foundation had been set.

What were some key steps you took from ideation through the recent launch?

Once back in Colorado, Matthew and I began meeting with tech leaders, developers, designers and product people to get help. Folks like Erik Mitisek, Marla Zeschin, July Tran, Ryan Martens, Brian Gryth, Lew Parker, Kim Hendrick, Andy Stone, Janell Schafer and Brad Feld were instrumental in helping us move things forward. Colorado has a #givefirst mantra and it was in full swing as we put together this team.

The local community was incredibly supportive. We met with the Code for Denver brigade, put together small lunches with local civic tech PMs, engineers and designers and began putting some formality around our plan.

Once Governor Polis was elected, we began talking with his team about how the Colorado Digital Service could happen. Governor Polis has a tech entrepreneur background, he understands the opportunity of a digital service. He also started Techstars, one of the largest tech accelerators in the world that helps new startups to scale. A Digital Service is also about investing in talent, in people, to work on hard problems. He was supportive right away.

This led to a key moment in the Colorado Digital Service origin story when Colorado’s new CIO, Dr. Theresa Szczurek, suggested we do a pilot project to demonstrate how a digital service team would work within the existing OIT structure.

I was worried we would fail. We didn’t have a real team, it would have to be a volunteer effort. Would we be able to get access to systems? Would people trust us to help?

We decided to go for it and I asked several of my engineer, PM and designer friends to help out. We spent two weeks analyzing a project that was at a crossroads by doing tons of user interviews, looking at some code and facilitating some discussions. It was clear the team needed to work in a more agile way and had to make some changes to move forward. We put all of our findings in a discovery sprint report and handed it over to the CIO. The report had positive impact and reassured the CIO and the Governor’s team that having a digital service would be beneficial for the state.

The final step to make this happen was working with the State Legislature. We met with Senators and Representatives on the Joint Technology and Joint Budget Committees to walk them through the idea and talk about how it was working in federal government and other states.

Matthew McAllister (left), Colorado Governor Jared Polis (w/ Colorado sneakers), and Kelly Taylor (right).
Governor Polis dashes to his office after delivering the State of the State address (see his sneakers under the Colorado flag).

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

In a State Digital Service model, the keys are funding and air cover. The effort needs support from the top, either from the Governor or Mayor, in a city context. A big decision that needs to be made is where the Digital Service lives in your State’s Government structure. Often, the initial thinking is for the Digital Service to report into the Office of Information Technology (OIT) because “it’s a technology thing.” If OIT works across agencies and has great leadership, this could work well (like what we are doing here in CO). If not, your Digital Service could simply be viewed as staff augmentation and likely will fail.

You’ll need a charter, funding and the first cohort of awesome designers, engineers and product managers from your State ready to serve. If the right structure is put in place, the talent in your region will seek out opportunities to be involved.

Once you’re setup and have your inaugural team on board, now the real work begins. Picking the right projects will be your first challenge.

Several USDS alumni have gone on to start state teams. Kelly with Giuseppe Morgana, the creator of the Innovation Lab at the New Jersey Office of Innovation.

For folks who may be interested in getting involved with your work, are you hiring?

Yes, absolutely. We are hiring engineers, designers and product managers for a six-month to two-year “tour of service” to enhance the lives of all Coloradans. To get started, go to colorado.gov/digitalservice.

The best of technology.
The best of government.
And we want you.

We’re looking for the most tenacious designers, software engineers, product managers, and more, who are committed to untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services. You’ll join a team of the most talented technologists from across the private sector and government.
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.

The United States Digital Service is a tech startup working across the Federal government to deliver better services to the American people. www.usds.gov