Between inception and implementation: Lessons learnt and challenges as take-aways from DigitalService's first year
With the founding of DigitalService in October 2020, the Federal Government created an internal digitalization unit to drive digital transformation of the federal public administration. Our most important task is to provide digital applications for citizens, developed with our own teams according to agile, user-centered methods, and at the same time to support sustainable competence-building and cultural change in the public administration through our Fellowship programmes
Why an in-house unit?
A brief digression back to the year 2020: Why did the Federation decide to set up an in-house unit for this purpose? The "Federal interest" in having its own in-house unit was and is
- to create a flexible, dynamic and low-hierarchy working environment that is more effective than before in attracting highly sought-after digital professionals who are urgently needed for user-friendly, modern solutions in the public administration as well, and in bringing these professionals as close as possible to the administration,
- to ensure the control and strategic thrust of our activities in line with the Federal IT strategy through the Federal Republic in its capacity as sole owner,
- to embed digital competences more sustainably through the joint development of software together with the various departments, to ensure that competences and experience do not leave the administration once again when service providers leave after completing a contract, thereby creating dependencies on external IT service providers and high licensing costs for proprietary solutions, and
- to realize applications that are truly demand-oriented through the close involvement of departments and users because they are developed and tested according to the needs of the latter.
Our goals for the first year
The slogan for 2021 was #yearoflearning. Just like in the area of software development, we were convinced that we should not plan DigitalService as an organization in detail in advance in conference rooms and PowerPoint presentations, and instead build, adapt and align it in an informed manner based on experience in the implementation. We set ourselves the following goals:
- Identify overarching key factors for successful agile development in the public sector through operational work on different software projects.
- Establish Fellowship programmes as a strategic vehicle for change to promote modernization of the Federal Government and capacity-building.
- Build staff capacities and strong functional expertise while developing a culture and processes to scale sustainably.
- Spell out the strategic focus for DigitalService to maximize our impact in implementation over the next few years.
Initial projects: Quick-start in software development
We directly started working on the first software projects in November 2020. We wanted to learn as quickly as possible what challenges we would be encountering in the implementation of projects, what stumbling blocks are still present when it comes to user-centricity and administrative digitalization in operational and concrete terms, and how our teams need to be set up and work in order to support digitalization of the Federal Government in the best possible way.
Agora – developed jointly with the Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) and the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) – is a collaboration platform for the public health service that is supporting the overarching cooperation of health offices during the pandemic. With Steuerlotse (tax guide) an online service was created together with the Federal Ministry of Finance (BMF) to provide senior citizens the opportunity to file their tax returns online in just a few steps and without any previous experience. It was possible to put both products into use after 5 to 7 months.
In April 2021, we commenced work on two more software projects. UseID aims to increase acceptance of identity cards' eID function. Together with the Federal Ministry of Justice (BMJ) and the Federal Office of Justice (BfJ), we are responsible for the development of a new legal information system including a legal information portal. In addition, we supported the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) in the development of an online generator for legally secure IT contracts (EVB-IT) beginning in the autumn of 2021.
The work on these very different products has shown: Fast, iterative and user-centered software development is fundamentally possible even in an administrative context. But we have also encountered challenges and structural hurdles in the projects.
Key lesson learnt: Focus of our unit
It takes a consistent focus to make a perceivable difference and accomplish our mission.
Right from the start, various ministries were open to working with DigitalService and there was a tremendous interest in our approach. Project requests quickly exceeded our capacities. This was also associated with high expectations right from the start, however. In addition, there were repeated enquiries about other challenges related to the digitalization and modernization of the public administration, which, however, do not coincide with our actual mandate – for example, an improvement in cooperation between the public administration and start-ups, support for innovation and participation processes or process consulting for digital projects.
Everyone in our organization is driven by our mission. However, with the diversity of challenges, we run the risk of getting bogged down with too many issues at once.
We have core competencies and goals on which we must and indeed want to focus. This focus must be clearly and transparently formulated both internally and towards the outside world. So that it is clear what can be expected of us and what we want to assume responsibility for.
Key lesson learnt: Learn to translate
Getting away from buzzwords – Explaining our approach, managing expectations and clearly defining roles are critical to gaining acceptance for our work.
The term agility has unfortunately lost its precise meaning. We are regularly told that "we are already working in an agile and user-centered way". But even if we are no longer talking about a specification, there are often solutions that are already mature in the minds of our partners. And even where a culture of mistakes and learning is actually desired, an honest pivot or the failure of one's own projects is a tough pill to swallow.
Bringing together the different working realities of modern software development teams and administrative staff requires more translation work and accompanying change management than we initially provided. In partnerships, we have not always managed to establish a common understanding. This has sometimes led to friction, delays and misunderstandings – despite the high motivation of the partners we have worked with.
It is our responsibility to call for the necessary framework conditions for an agile approach and to ensure that the desire for agility is also backed up with decision-making powers and resources on the part of project partners. Every project needs one or more project partners with technical responsibility who can closely support development as an integrated part of the team. Digital competence-building must also be assigned more weight in our project work with administrative staff.
Key lesson learnt: Select projects according to clear criteria
To develop applications that live up to our mission – user-centered, iterative, with real added value for citizens – we need to be more than just "software builders".
In the administration, software projects are still often realized in stages and different partners or service providers are used. As a result, planning, implementation and operation are usually not in one set of hands.
However, user-centered, iterative work is not possible with this approach – our first year as DigitalService clearly showed this. Because in the early days we were also often asked to be purely "implementers". Due to the previous detailed planning and conceptual work, however, our approach sometimes felt like an "agile stage play". This combined with the very real danger that our solutions will not be successful, either – at least not if success is measured by the use and acceptance of products.
Furthermore, after the go-live of the first version (minimum viable product, “MVP”), none of the products we implemented succeeded in finding an operating partner who could assume the tasks of roll-out, operation and user-centered further development of the product the way we desired.
In order for us to succeed in establishing a shift in thinking from time-limited projects to long-term and iteratively (further) developed products, we need to only get involved in those projects in which we also want to build up an internal product team responsible for the solution in the long term.
Our project selection must become more proactive and be based on clear criteria so that we can implement strategically relevant products of the state relating to administrative digitalization and digital sovereignty.
Key lesson learnt: Infrastructure
Without an efficient infrastructure, open standards and interfaces, we cannot develop modern digital products in the public administration.
Our interdisciplinary teams possess the experience and methodology needed for agile software development. However, simply filling a skills gap in product management, UX/UI design or software programming is not enough.
In order to pick up the pace in administrative digitalization and to be able to develop according to modern standards, modern, cloud-based development and operating environments for government solutions and the necessary organizational and legal framework conditions are needed. Outsourced operations and associated dependencies make rapid iterations and releases in product development difficult. Clearly defined standards and interfaces are needed to ensure interoperability. Open source should be the rule.
Key lesson learnt: Transparency is necessary, but time-consuming
Open working and transparent communication are an important part of our self-image, but we have not been able to achieve the levels we would like here.
As DigitalService, we also want to contribute to structural change through our work. To do this, it is essential to make our challenges, findings, successes and mistakes accessible and to discuss them openly. Furthermore, our products should also be made openly available. The use of open source components and open sourcing of products financed by public funds are still the exception in the administration, however. Accordingly, this understanding is associated with greater procedural and legal efforts than originally expected.
Moreover, we need to actively invest in community-building, both within the public administration and externally, in order to engage expert communities and civil society so that everyone profits. In the first year, we were not able to sufficiently meet our own and external demands for transparency regarding our working methods, processes and projects. We often lacked the time and resources for this work. We need to proactively make time available for staff to contribute their open insights into our work ("working in the open") and to make the results of our work accessible and reusable.
Outlook: Our strategy for 2022-23
We learned a lot in 2021, even though we are far from finished. We encountered some challenges that we had not anticipated. Fortunately, many of our original assumptions from our beginnings have also been confirmed. We are successful with both Fellowships and product development. And we are being perceived more and more broadly in the administration as a committed and valuable digitalization partner.
In tandem with our project work, in 2021 we analyzed in a structured way how we can create the greatest added value for a digital state in the future through our work. Together with partners from the public administration, civil society and politics, we have laid down our strategic thrust for the next two years over the last few months, which we will also be sharing with readers here on next week's blog.