Building a digital team
Create teams of digital talent
Improving digital services requires organizational change, and it takes a team approach to get the traction needed. Create agile, cross-functional, and self-organizing digital teams around critical services. For example, you might want to put a team in place to focus on driver’s license and renewal services. Another team might focus on vehicle registration. Digital talent is more effective in focused teams because digital teams will have an easier time introducing new methodologies to the organization.
Keep teams small
If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large.Jeff Bezos
A small team is often going to be more efficient and effective than a larger team. By keeping teams small, you can:
- Save time. Fewer people means you can spend less time learning how to work together and more time getting the work done.
- Focus on quality, not quantity. A small team may do fewer things at once, but they will do them right the first time.
When you’re putting together a core digital team for product or service, aim for a team of no more than six to eight people.
It’s better to have many small teams working together than to have one large team. For example, the driver’s license and vehicle registration teams might share what they learn from user research. Since most people who register vehicles also have a driver’s license, these two teams may have more impact on the overall user experience by working together.
Even a team working on a single service won’t work in a silo. A digital team will need help from other parts of your organization, such as:
- Public relations and communication
Include multiple roles on each digital team
Most government agencies are now technology organizations. They increasingly use technology to run their internal workflows and operations. And they’re expected to provide user-friendly and self-service digital experiences for the people they serve. In-house digital teams are critical.
Most digital teams should have at least one of each role described below.
Software engineers, or software developers, design, implement, and maintain software applications. Software engineers may do this for custom software applications or commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS).
Front-end engineers build user-facing components. They work with closely with user researchers and product designers. Back-end engineers work with front-end engineers to build services that drive the interface. The software engineers on your team:
- Write and maintain custom software applications
- Configure and customize COTS applications
- Help pre-process and analyze data
- Operate and monitor services in development, staging, and production
DevOps engineers help product teams deploy code quickly, securely, and reliably. They work closely with software engineers and:
- Write code to solve problems with software infrastructure, deployment, and operations
- Configure and maintain continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines to automatically build and test the software
- Define, configure, and secure the application’s hardware and software infrastructure
- Configure and maintain the tools that monitor hardware and software
- Help software engineers architect and develop software that’s scalable and reliable
Security engineers ensure the privacy of users by securing user data. This is essential, since many government systems deal with Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and Protected Health Information (PHI). Security engineers work closely with software engineers and DevOps engineers. Their key tasks are to:
- Conduct regular security audits and scans
- Work with DevOps engineers to patch systems against vulnerabilities
- Help software engineers architect and develop secure systems
Government services should be managed the same way a company manages a commercial product. Product managers help determine the roadmap for your service, and they establish a product-market fit. Product managers work closely with user researchers and product designers and:
- Guide the team in deciding how to iteratively build features for users
- Define the product/service vision by describing future goals and features
- Work with the team to define the feature and technical roadmaps
- Gather and analyze usage data to drive changes
- Create assets for users, stakeholders, and government officials with the communication team
- Apply for grants and other funding
User researchers, user experience (UX) researchers, learn about and empathize with the users of your service. They test the usability of each feature. User researchers work closely with product designers, content designers, and product managers. User researchers:
- Understand who the users of the service are
- Help the team understand what the users expect by conducting research
- Work with other designers to develop interfaces that are useful, usable, and accessibly
- Conduct usability tests on features
- Work with the product manager to define the next iterations
Product designers turn user research into interactions and interfaces that work for everybody. They design how someone will interact with a service. UX designers work closely with UX researchers, visual designers, content strategists, and front-end engineers. Their key responsibilities are to:
- Generate low-fidelity prototypes
- Work closely with visual designers to define the look and feel of applications
- Plan and conduct usability testing for prototypes and implemented interfaces
Visual designers build the look and feel of the service. Often times products designers also play the role of a visual designer. Visual designers ensure that the design provides a consistent and accessible user experience. Good design reflects the purpose of the service. Veterans’ benefits applications should look different from picnic table reservations. Visual designers work closely with user researchers, product designers, and front-end engineers. They:
- Build the visual style guide for the application
- Design implementation-ready interfaces
- Ensure accessibility throughout the design
Government services often have complex information to communicate to users. Examples include: eligibility rules for benefits, applicable laws and regulations, and complex data. Content designers ensure that content is easy to read and presented where it’s needed. Content designers work closely with other researchers and designers to:
- Develop user workflows and information architecture
- Create and edit plain language content for the service and any related assets
- Ensure content is understandable and actionable
- Define the voice and tone of your communication
- Develop content guidelines for all members of the team to use
- Help tell user stories
Create cross-functional digital teams
Your digital teams need to be cross-functional. Structure teams so that most of the work can be done within the team. A research-heavy project that needs to continuously borrow a UX researcher from another team won’t be as effective as one with an embedded researcher. The composition of your team depends on the project type and stage of development.
With commercial products, use these questions to help you identify the right team members:
- Does the platform allow you to change the look and feel? If there’s limited flexibility, the team won’t need product and visual designers.
- Do existing staff have experience with the platform? For example, for Salesforce, you’ll need Salesforce developers. If you don’t have the in-house experience, you’ll need to bring on a new developer or allow time for training.
- Who’s responsible for the security of the system? With SaaS, the software company will ensure the system’s security and you won’t need a security engineer.
Software projects that are mostly contracted out
Many governments contract out most of their software development. You’ll still need a cross-functional digital team to manage their work. Creating mixed government and contractor teams is a good idea for knowledge transfer. Create a “one-badge” culture, and treat each member the same. Roles you’ll need:
- Senior software developer to review the code written by the contractors
- User researcher to work with the user researchers on the contractor team and ensure that the government team builds institutional knowledge about its users
Custom software projects
When you’re developing custom software, you’ll need representation from all of the areas of expertise we described above. At different stages of development, you may need to add additional capacity in one or more areas.
- Create cross-functional teams of digital talent of no more than six to eight people each
- Decide the composition of your team based on the type of project: COTS, mostly contracted out, or custom software built in-house
- Vary the size and composition of your team based on which phase your project is in: discovery, alpha, beta, live
Case study: Georgia Digital Service
When Nikhil Deshpande started the Georgia Digital Service (GADS), he knew it would be hard to hire digital talent with the breadth and depth of skills needed. He developed an approach that would allow him to supplement internal staff with a strong vendor pool as needed.
First, Deshpande needed to hire a team. He used his strong personal network to identify and hire an internal team of strategists. He started out by filling these strategic positions primarily with contractors. Over the next year, he worked with human resources to hire permanent staff. His internal team has now grown to a core team of 15.
Deshpande and his core team then turned their attention to creating a multi-disciplinary vendor pool. To supplement their internal capacity, they needed additional expertise in user research, product design, content design, product management, and engineering. After rigorous evaluations, GADS identified and retained multiple vendors in each area of expertise. Now they pull these vendors into projects as necessary.
The state and vendor teams work together to support GADS. Strong project management practices allow the vendors to work well with each other and the state team. Shared tools, like Slack and Jira, allow teams to collaborate without friction.
Tips for procuring high-caliber vendors:
- Look for specific evidence of the skills you need. When GADS issued a solicitation for Drupal engineers, it required responding vendors to get most of their business from Drupal engagements. It also required them to make public contributions to the Drupal community.
- Use a multi-tiered evaluation approach. Filter out unqualified vendors through a short written submission. Then invite the most qualified vendors to participate in a technical challenge where subject matter experts can evaluate their skills.
- Work with your procurement team to ensure that your process follows internal policies.
- Scope work in short-term projects. You can add options for additional work based on vendor performance.