How agencies can scale up digital services in the wake of COVID-19

Like restaurants and retail stores, government agencies must reinvent how they deliver services in a world where pandemics like COVID-19 make in-person interactions risky.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, many government agencies had begun migrating in-person interactions into digital services. Now, every agency, from federal to local, needs to envision a way they can serve their constituents with as little in-person contact as possible.

Meeting that goal means that agencies need to become excellent at building, deploying, and scaling digital services. Given what I’ve seen as Ad Hoc has supported agencies making this transition, my recommendation is to start by hiring and empowering two teams of experts in consumer-grade online services.

Dedicate one team to building a central platform that will serve as the infrastructure for your agency’s new suite of digital services. The other team should serve as a digital service consulting group to lead the way for your agency and the vendors supporting your work.

The platform team

Even moderate-sized agencies looking to move most of their interactions online will have a large number of services to build. Many of those services will need a handful of common components: design system, identity management, cloud storage, monitoring, deployment pipeline, and more.

Each of these components should be operated, and sometimes built, by a team within your agency. You don’t need to build them all from scratch, but you do need in-house experts to make existing tools work for you. If you use the U.S. Web Design System as the basis for your front end code, you’ll still need an internal team to set standards, build components specific to your agency, and assist vendor teams in ensuring new applications remain consistent.

This platform team will need a full breadth of digital services skills including product management, agile software development, human-centered design, and user research. They’ll also need the autonomy to investigate the needs of their users, primarily the vendor and internal teams using their tools, and set their own priorities for what infrastructure to build and support.

The digital service team

While the platform team operates the tools and infrastructure that allow your agency to create consistent, modern services, you’ll need a separate digital services team to lead the way.

Becoming a government agency that offers services on par with the consumer internet is a difficult transition, and you can’t get there by using waterfall RFPs to buy the same services from the same vendors. To start, you need inside experts on your team that can show your program teams what it’s like to build and operate a digital service in the consumer world.

This team should be native experts in the tools and techniques that are ubiquitous in the private sector but still gaining traction in government: agile development, programmable cloud infrastructure, product management, robust monitoring, and heavy investment in user experience.

This team will need to become close partners with stakeholders across your agency. They’ll need a seat at the table at the very beginning of identifying problems and priorities, and they’ll need to be there through procurement strategy and overseeing vendors to ensure you’re getting the right product built the right way. The only way your digital service team will be able to scale their impact across your agency is with a close partnership with a well-supported platform team.

What this looks like in the real world

At the General Services Administration, they’ve built this model in the Technology Transformation Services (TTS) with TTS Solutions, the platform team, and TTS Clients and Markets, the digital services consulting arm. TTS is a little different in that they offer both of these teams as paid services to other federal agencies rather than focusing primarily on GSA systems, but the principle remains the same.

The TTS Solutions team builds and operates a design system, cloud hosting, identity verification, search, analytics, an API management service, and more. These services are used within GSA and by agencies across the government as building blocks to make it easier to launch and operate consistent digital services. Federal, state, and local agencies should look at this list as a good baseline for what you’ll need to begin building an ecosystem of digital services.

On the other side of the house is TTS Clients and Markets, which houses a number of different teams that offer highly skilled technologists with a range of skills to agencies looking to improve their digital services. While the Presidential Innovation Fellows, 18F, and the Centers of Excellence teams have built some services directly, they’ve had a greater impact by using assisted acquisitions and consulting to show agencies the path forward to modern, people-friendly services.

Digital transformation work can be a huge leap from traditional IT, and having a trusted team show internal stakeholders what questions to ask can make all the difference. This team can also absorb some of the first-mover risks of trying new ways of building and buying digital services.

Ad Hoc took a similar approach with our work at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). After the success of transforming into a unified, veteran-centric experience, VA created two teams to continue that work throughout the agency: Veteran Services Platform and Veteran Services - Applications.

On the Platform team, Ad Hoc has supported the VA in building, operating, and maintaining the platform that powers ecosystem of applications. The platform is a technical stack that empowers teams to quickly and easily build Veteran-facing apps, and the team provides human support and manual processes that augment the product thinking and technical skills of vendor and VA development teams. The Platform team builds design consistency, accessibility, usability, and best-practice technical approaches into the platform so that Veterans get a highly-available and usable experience from every app built on the platform.

On the Applications team, Ad Hoc and separate vendor teams have used that shared technical stack to improve a wide range of benefits for Veterans, their families, and caregivers. From improving how Veterans apply for healthcare and disability benefits, to how they find local VA facilities, to how they can check their claim status, we’ve supported the VA in building an entirely new, Veteran-centric suite of digital services.

In-person to online

Moving the majority of your agency’s interactions online will require carefully navigating a number of difficult issues. How do you authenticate people’s identities without an in-person option? Can people with disabilities or limited internet access easily use your services? Are your backend processes ready to handle the change in volume and type of data that you’ll get from moving online?

The answer to these questions will not be the same for every agency or even every department. The best way to get to the right answers is to have technologists with the right skills on your team to show how modern digital practices can best solve these problems as your agency moves away from in-person services. Now is the time to start building a roadmap for how your agency will operate mostly online. Agencies that invest in this two-team model will be better equipped to design their roadmap and execute it well.