Making a Successful Shift to Digital-first Government

This is part one of a three-part “Digital Government 101” series, showcasing the work of New York City’s Office of Technology and Innovation, shared in partnership with the Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. The Beeck Center, and the U.S. Digital Response we are coordinating a new peer network for people who work in digital governance, Digital Service Network. DSN is an evolving network that connects digital service professionals and teams so government can be responsive, open, accessible, and accessible to all. The insights in this series are from presentations by Katherine Benjamin, the deputy chief technology officer for digital services in the Office of Technology and Innovation and Alexis Wichowski, the office’s deputy chief technology officer for inclusive innovation.


Governments are transforming the way they operate, using new technologies and revamped processes to improve services and residents’ experiences. The majority of government processes have been centered on the delivery of physical services. Today, government is positioning itself as a digital-first organization. Yet, governments’ lack of experience being digital by default, coupled with an ongoing shortage of in-house technology talent, has left them scrambling to keep up with technology needs.

Digital Services: The Importance

Digital services are being invested by government for many reasons. Because digital services are what residents expect from the private sectors, they also expect similar services from government. People expect services that are easy to use and can be integrated into their daily lives. For instance, residents don’t want their jobs to be disrupted by waiting in line for parking tickets. Others may find it difficult to access in-person services because they have different lived experiences, such as sight, hearing and mobility. Digital services that are well-designed can remove barriers for many people to access services in person. 

For a variety of reasons, governments rely on residents to use services. This includes obtaining food handling permits to meet wider public health needs. Scaling up digital transactions can reduce costs—such as staffing and printing—that governments otherwise incur by providing physical services. The Government Digital Service and saved the British government over $4.1 billion. The speed and efficiency with which services can be provided increases by going digital. Digital infrastructure also allows for greater accountability and transparency through processes such as opening data to the public.

The Talent Crisis

In order to fill their talent gap, government agencies are being creative in hiring. In order to attract digital talent from private sector, some are partnering up with organizations like Code for America. This partnership can be seen in the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows program. The partnership was launched in February 2020 and brings together designers, developers, and project managers with experience in the private sector to improve and create digital products within a 10-week sprint. 

The private sector and the government operate in completely different ways. While the government is hierarchical and isolated, the private sector operates more fluidly and is more connected. This is partly because government processes and histories are deeply rooted within bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is essential to ensure government works conform to federal, state, and local laws and are fiscally responsible. 

NYC needs your help[x] Innovation fellows get oriented working in government, the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation put together a crash course for digital-era talent. The courses Government 101, Digital Government 101 are designed to make it easier for new colleagues to transition to the public service and help them get started. 

Because of the amount of work required in digital areas, government agencies will likely continue to rely on temporary staff to help fill talent gaps. It’s critical for government agencies to take the time to help temporary digital staff members understand the culture and processes of their offices to ensure they can navigate bureaucracies and contribute to the effective launch of digital projects.

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