Designing Public Services for a Digital World

A Report from the 2016 Public Sector for the Future Summit

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The complete version of this report is available as a PDF


There is no debating the digital future is here—and it’s impacting government. Citizens want public services 24/7, mobile, anticipatory, personalized, and simple—just like they get from other service organizations. In fact, research by Accenture shows that nearly three quarters (73 percent) of U.S. citizens hold government to “the same or higher” standard as their commercial providers.1 In other words, they want their government to be as smart as their smartphone. They want their government in their pocket. They demand a government that is ready and available when they are.

The central challenge for public sector leaders is this: Design government organizations for this new digital world or lose public support and legitimacy.

We have redesigned governments before in the face of such massive change. The last great redesign came at the beginning of the 20th century when we needed to address corruption and to scale services as the nation and economy grew. We needed a design that focused on accountability, transparency, equity, and fairness—and we successfully created it. Yet in today’s digital world, we also need the agility, speed, and flexibility that citizens demand.

Now, how we design governmental organizations is more important than ever. The public sector for the future will require a fresh look at organizational structures and systems and the human resources and cultures that hinder or harness the ability to produce results. As government leaders look to design government for a digital world, questions arise, such as:

  • What are the best practices, models, and examples of balancing classic government operating models with the new abilities of digital business models?
  • When should a government organization adopt new digital technologies and tools, and how should the adoption be paced and managed?
  • How can government grow and develop the skills and capabilities of people, as well as the partnerships needed to deliver on the new designs of government?
  • What leadership strategies and methods can be used to prepare and change organizational culture for a digital world?

To address these critical questions, Leadership for a Networked World and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, in collaboration with Accenture, convened The 2016 Public Sector for the Future Summit: Designing Public Services for a Digital World. This tenth annual Summit not only helped participants implement near-term innovations but also guided their design of longer-term strategies that improve government effectiveness, efficiency, and outcomes.

We hope this report offers new ideas, strategies, and insights to help public sector leaders redesign their organizations to thrive in a digital world.

A letter from the Executive Director

Dr. Antonio Oftelie, Executive Director of Leadership for a Networked World, reflects on this year's summit and it's implications.

Read his letter here. >

“I like to think about where we are ... Washington State government ... in terms of the Uptake and Edge Matrix. I appreciate the conversation that happens during the course of these two days together, and the opportunity to reflect on where we need to further push ourselves.”
Wendy Korthuis-Smith
Director, Results Washington

Report Insights

  1. Design Thinking Meets Development in California

    In late 2015, officials at two key agencies in California’s state government faced a decision that would have a significant impact on the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of the state’s most vulnerable residents. The California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS) and the state’s Government Operations Agency (GovOps) were preparing to replace the Child Welfare Services case management system, and the Department of Social Services (DSS), part of CHHS, wanted to devise a new system that maximized efficiency and impact. Unfortunately, the initial Request for Proposals (RFP) was more than 1,500 pages long and used a monolithic “waterfall” approach that ran the risk of binding the state to an ineffective vendor.

  2. Making Government More Accessible in Michigan

    During six years as a senior executive at Gateway, including one year as the computer manufacturer’s CEO, Rick Snyder came to appreciate the central role that computers and Information Technology (IT) play in peoples’ lives and the economy. Soon after becoming the governor of Michigan in January 2011, Snyder realized that the state had a long way to go to establish a strong IT-citizen interface.

  3. Strategic and Tactical Reforms at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

    In spring 2014, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) faced a crisis. That April, the national media had begun reporting on allegations of long wait times and false record keeping at VA medical facilities across the country. The coverage resulted in Congressional hearings as well as separate investigations by the FBI, the White House, and VA’s Inspector General that confirmed many of the allegations and led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in late May. The problems facing VA stemmed in part from the agency’s dependence on outdated legacy systems, variance in veteran outcomes across the enterprise, and its failure to keep pace with technological change.

“How can we, as technologists, as leaders of organizations, as technocrats, be smarter about…communications and be smarter about the politics that we’re going to have to navigate in order to bring greater awareness about these changes that are ahead?”
Trey Childress
Deputy Governor, State of Illinois


As public officials strive to meet the demands of the 21st century and lead their organizations to the outer quadrants of the Uptake and Edge Matrix, they face the interwoven challenges of how to design more agile institutions and at the same time recruit talented staff who can help them to innovate. Adding to the difficulty, government leaders have to navigate a demanding environment in which citizens, accustomed to receiving services seamlessly from the private sector, are increasingly expecting more from government. Thus, transforming their organizations into optimized enterprises that are citizen-centric, evidence-based, and agile is no longer just a luxury for government officials; it is now a necessity for government to maintain its legitimacy deep into the 21st century.

The dialogue at The 2016 Public Sector for the Future Summit: Designing Public Services for a Digital World pointed to three critical steps that government officials can take to navigate this high-stakes challenge:

A broader takeaway from the Summit is that as much as the current wave of technological change introduces new challenges, it also presents an exciting opportunity for contemporary leaders to make their mark on U.S. history. As Accenture’s Peter Hutchinson observed, this is not the first time that leaders have had to redesign government institutions. In fact, roughly 100 years ago, government agencies were redesigned to fight corruption. This suggests that in the modern era, we have an opportunity to create a new systematic design that could endure for decades to come and in so doing, improve the lives of billions of people. That work will not be easy; but if leaders can keep in mind this noble end, and incorporate into their work the creative and innovative thinking that was on display at this year’s Summit, the payoff will be enormous.

Let’s get to work.

The Executive Leadership Group

Leadership for a Networked World, and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard would like to thank the Executive Leadership Group for their vision and ideas that aided the development of this Summit.

Marybel Batjer
California, Government Operations Agency
Trey Childress
Deputy Governor, COO
Illinois Office of the Governor
Ann Ebberts
Association of Government Accountants (AGA)
Wendy Korthuis-Smith
Director, Results Washington
Washington Office of the Governor
Matt Massman
Minnesota Department of Administration
Sharon Minnich
Secretary, Office of Administration
Pennsylvania Office of the Governor
John Miri
Chief Administrative Officer
Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA)
Mike Teller
Idaho Tax Commission
John Traylor
Executive Deputy Comptroller for Operations
New York Office of the State Comptroller
Tina Walha
Innovation Team Director, Office of Policy and Innovation
City of Seattle, Office of the Mayor

Hosted by

Leadership for a Networked World’s applied research, student innovation challenge, and on-campus summit programs are an initiative of Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie, Innovation Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH), part of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. TECH is a hub for students, faculty, alumni, and government and industry leaders to learn together, collaborate, and innovate. LNW accelerates these efforts by connecting leaders across sectors and developing cutting-edge thought leadership on innovation and organizational transformation.

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