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Digital Services Playbook

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how to successfully deliver digital services to consitutents


Residents, businesses, community organizations and visitors expect to interact with government through digital channels such as websites, email, and mobile applications. However, too many government applications do not work well, are delivered late, or are over budget.

To increase the success rate of these projects, the  U.S. Chief Information Officer and the Federal CIO Council created the Digital Services Playbook of 13 key “plays” drawn from successful best practices from the private sector and government that, when followed together, help build effective digital services.

The playbook is built off of agile approaches to product development.  Agile product development, used widely in creating computer programming (software), is based on adaptive planning, and rapid and iterative improvement as users give feedback.  This approach differs from conventional government programs, where agencies launch a complete project.  This method can lead to delays, higher costs, and poor products because it’s difficult to determine how effective a program is until people actually use and interact with policies, hardware or software.

The 13 plays, which include a summary, checklist and questions to ask, include:

1. Understand what people need.

Design needs to be driven by the needs of people, not constraints of government structures or silos. Bottom line:  Need to approach potential users early in the process to determine the exact challenges that need to be addressed and solved.

2. Address the whole experience, from start to finish

Digital service develop needs to forecast the range of ways a person might interact with services ( e.g., online, through a mobile application, on the phone, in person). Bottom line: Every touchpoint needs to move the user closer towards a successful outcome, including resolution of “pain points” in existing systems.

3. Make it simple and intuitive

Services need to be simple and intuitive enough that users succeed the first time, without assistance. Bottom line:  Pay attention to consistent design, language, and access to help for online and offline programs.  In other words, in-person contact and digital services are part of a package.

4. Build the service using agile and iterative practices

Adopt an incremental, fast-paced style to get program and digital services into users’ hands quickly. Provide frequent opportunities for the service team members to adjust requirements and development plans based on watching people use prototypes and real software. Bottom line: The agile approach challenges the no-risk methods that governments  now use. However, the aim is to build to a successful product through trial and error.

5. Structure budgets and contracts to support

Agency budgets need to align with experimental, phased, iterative product delivery. Bottom line: Agile product and service delivery requires new processes and legal structures for procurement regulations, budgets, contracts, delivery schedules and staff training.

6. Assign one leaders and hold that person accountable

There must be a single product owner who has the authority and responsibility across teams to assign tasks and work elements; make business, product, and technical decisions; and is accountable for the success or failure of the overall service. Bottom line: While working across departments ensures multi-functional programs, it can also dilute accountability.

Play 6 as presented in the Digital Playbook

Play 6 as presented in the Digital Playbook

7. Bring in experienced teams

Given the fast paced evolution of product development, agencies will likely need to bring in product managers, engineers, and designers who understand both longstanding program goals and the best in digital service development. Bottom line:  When outside help is needed, be prepared to pair existing teams with contractors who are good at both building and delivering effective digital services.

8. Choose a modern technology stack

Digital infrastructure such as hosting, databases, software frameworks, programming languages and other technology form an inter-operable “stack.” This stack needs to be as flexible as possible to allow continuous improvement. Bottom line: Agencies should avoid vendor lock-in (i.e., proprietary software built by and for a single vendor).. In particular, digital services teams should consider using open source, cloud based, and commodity solutions across the technology stack.

9. Deploy in a flexible hosting environment

Design both digital and human resources to meet demand, particularly conditions likely to produce demand spikes. Bottom line: Agencies need to plan for spikes in both software (digital program crashes) and hardware problems (surges, downtime, emergencies).

10. Automate testing and deployments

Use technology (code, testing) to your advantage to test and improve digital services to optimize human resources needed to deliver successful service. Bottom line: While manual tests and quality assurance is still necessary, automated tests provide consistent and reliable protection against unintentional regressions, and make it possible for developers to confidently release frequent updates to the service.

11.Manage security and privacy through reusable processes

Protecting sensitive information and keep systems secure is a constant feature of program development and maintenance. Bottom line: Engage privacy, security, and legal officer(s) to discuss the type of information collected, how it should be secured, and how it may be managed, used and shared. Comprehensively test and certify the components in each layer of the technology stack for security vulnerabilities, and then to re-use these same pre-certified components for multiple services.

12. Use data to drive decisions

Metrics help answer questions on how well digital services are designed and managed at all stages of a digital project  for users. Bottom line: Things to measure include:  how well a system performs, whether people are interacting with the system as needed, and whether feedback can be incorporated for continuous improvement.

13.  Default to open

Building open services and publishing open data, simplifies access to government , supports fixes and contributions, and enables reuse by entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and other agencies Bottom line: open data can lead to even more successful use of data and digital services as others find ways to use and reuse data, code and program design. However, there is some data that requires protection (health, protection of minors, etc..).

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U.S. Chief Information Officer and the Federal CIO Council

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