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Why Government Leaders Need to Become Digital Leaders

It gets harder from here. Getting modernization efforts right and avoiding project failures requires that the people at the top of an organization feel comfortable with technology.

As two of the architects of the United States Digital Service, an office of the White House staffed by some of the top talent from the technology and design worlds, we've seen firsthand how public-sector modernization efforts fail because of the very nature of how governments and their leaders think about technology. These repeated failures threaten the public's trust and faith in democracy in ways that we simply cannot afford.

The same dysfunctions that recently plagued the Iowa Democratic Party also plague government modernization efforts at the federal, state and local level. This has had enormous negative impact on those who use government services: veterans, Medicaid and SNAP recipients, young people trying to manage their federal student loans, children placed in the care of the state, the elderly and the disabled, those who use DMVs, and everyone else who comes in contact with government digital services that don't work the way they should.

How many times will we need to learn the lesson that to function effectively in today's world, the leaders of our public sector — the top elected and career officials, not just those with "information" or "technology" in their titles — need to have an understanding of and comfort level with digital technology? You don't need to be from Silicon Valley or be able to code to be a digital leader. What you do need is to have enough understanding of the process to lead and manage it in a way that maximizes its benefits and minimizes the risk of failure.

One thing government does well, or at least a lot of, is buying things. So government has largely seen the opportunity to move into the digital age as a problem of procurement. But digital doesn't work well when it's just something you buy. When the thing you're trying to do through a digital interface is core to your mission, then digital must be something that, as a leader, you involve yourself with deeply.

Buying an app will not ensure the outcomes you want any more than buying a new pair of running shoes will ensure that you finish a marathon. You still have to do the work — every piece of it, top to bottom.

It's not that governments shouldn't work with technology vendors. Of course they should. What they shouldn't do is abdicate responsibility for success to those vendors. Part of the reason that our government leaders do this is that too often the people in leadership do not feel comfortable with technology.

Modern technology can be a real Achilles heel for elected officials and other leaders who are accomplished in their own domains and hesitant to ask the hard questions on something they don't understand. If you've never worked in an organization with digital capability, it's hard to know how to evaluate digital leaders and position them for success. What you need is leadership with the expertise, authority and influence to align a whole organization around digital strategy. This is so much more than an app.

This lack of comfort also means that leaders too often award contracts based on existing relationships rather than on a true evaluation of competing vendors' competence and strategy. And more importantly, it keeps leaders from rolling up their sleeves and evaluating progress while questioning and testing how a product works through the course of a project. "It worked when they demoed it" have become famous last words.

The best digital leaders understand strategy and culture, partnering deeply with peers in other functions and domains, and building an organization's ability to function well in an increasingly digital world. Digital leaders ensure that their organizations build, test and release software in short, frequent cycles. They make sure that software is tested from beginning to end and with the people who will actually be using it.

Digital leaders also demystify the technology for the rest of the executive suite and enroll them in the product. They take responsibility for the success or failure of a product to meet the needs of users, and they hold themselves and everyone else accountable to user needs. (At Code for America, we call these competencies the principles and practices of delivery-driven government.)

As White House veterans, we can both attest to the fact that there are true digital leaders in every level of government today. We've seen many brilliant policy and government-operations people learn these principles and practices. But there aren't enough of them, and the shortage has become a crisis.

If there's anything that we've learned from failures in government modernization efforts, it's this: You need to build a core competency in delivering government services and bringing people you wouldn't have thought of hiring into leadership positions, giving them real power and a seat at the strategy table. In doing so, you won't just build better technology, you'll also make meaningful strides toward restoring faith in our institutions.

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