Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Finding a Home for Your Digital Services Team

Its great to see more and more state and local governments setting up dedicated, cross discipline digital service teams focused on improving the customer experience with government services. The State of Pennsylvania is joining these ranks with a recent Executive Order from Governor Josh Shapiro creating the new Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience (CODE PA).

When establishing new teams like this, one of the issues that state and local governments struggle with the most is where to place these new groups within the bureaucracy, and how to set up lines of reporting and accountability. Most governments use a variation of the approach used in Pennsylvania.

According to the Executive Order establishing CODE PA:

“CODE PA shall be housed within OA [the Office of Administration] and be led by an Executive Director, who will be an employee of OA with a dual report to the Commonwealth’s CIO and the Governor’s Director of Digital Strategy.”

“The Executive Director shall be a member of the CIO’s and the OA Secretary’s senior executive team.”

What this seems to mean is that the new group will be organizationally close to the primary technology office (which is also housed within the Office of Administration), but operate independently of it. In addition, it seems to mean that the Executive Director of the new group will have at least two, and possibly three bosses. This is probably not ideal, but there may be valid reasons for these choices.

The question of where to locate a digital services team within the state or city bureaucracy and deciding who they report up to can be a tricky one. There are pros and cons to each choice.

Proximity to the Governor or Mayor’s Office can bring clout, which is particularly useful in dealing with agencies that are not sufficiently motivated for digital modernization and CX enhancement efforts. However, positioning these teams outside of the primary technology agency can make it more difficult to work with the individuals that are responsible for the core IT infrastructure of the state or city. Being organizationally connected to the IT office can also be useful because it means that the IT office has a direct stake in digital modernization efforts.

I’ve seen several different versions of this decision play out at the city and state level.

When I worked for the City of Philadelphia, the Chief Data Officer and primary technology team were a part of the Office of Information Technology (later rechristened as the Office of Innovation and Technology). As Chief Data Officer, I had a governing Executive Order with specific requirements that I used to interact with different agencies and drive efforts to the requirements listed in the order. Because I was implementing the requirements set out in a Mayoral Executive Order, I felt like I had a dotted line connection to the Mayor’s Office, even though my position was technically classified as a Deputy Chief Information Officer under the City’s CIO. I’m not sure the CIO always agreed with this interpretation.

When I worked as the Director of the State of Delaware Government Information Center (GIC), which took the lead on digital service enhancements, this group was located completely outside the Office of Information Technology. The GIC was (and still is) situated within the Delaware Department of State, which seems confusing until you understand that the Department of State also houses Delaware’s statewide library system, and the state archives. Management of web-based information was deemed an extension of that agency’s mission to manage other kinds of information. But really, this was the result of an internal political struggle that favored the Secretary of State (a close ally and longtime friend of the Governor at the time) and the head of the Office of Information Technology, who had fallen out of favor due to the high-profile failure of some large IT systems.

Both approaches had advantages and drawbacks. For cities and states looking to set up digital services or modernization teams, I’d offer the following advice based on my own experience.

First, be deliberate about where this new team is located and why. Where possible, locate it organizationally close to the primary IT agency that manages the state’s technology systems and infrastructure, unless there are compelling reasons not to. One of the common approaches in digital services modernization is a shared services approach, and the central IT agency is a logical place for these kinds of services to be housed.

Give this group top cover and authority through an Executive Order or other policy directive. This team will be new and addressing complex, multi-agency problems, and will need to have their efforts backed by an explicit order from the chief executive.

Finally, keep the lines of authority and communication clear and simple. Setting up a newly organized team staffed with people who may be new to government and saddling them with complex or opaque lines of authority will likely not accelerate digital modernization efforts.

I’m really excited to see Pennsylvania take this step, and am eager to see the progress made by CODE PA. Here’s to more state and city governments taking this important step.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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