You've probably seen any number of stories about how some founder in Silicon Valley says their startup can tackle a big societal problem better and cheaper than the public sector because government just can't do anything right.
Or maybe you've heard about a public sector executive immediately dismissing an idea that came from the private sector on how to do things differently because government's unique and this is how it's always been done.
These scenarios speak to larger tensions and misconceptions between the private and public sector. But if there's one thing that the pandemic and the resulting sudden need for the deployment of impactful digital tools taught us is that we don't have to accept business as usual as the only way to solve problems and deliver services.
This week we're talking about what you can accomplish when you harness tech, talent and modern approaches to digital service delivery in the public sector.
Joining us to talk about this is Hillary Hartley, CEO of US Digital Response. USDR was founded in 2020 to pair volunteer tech talent with governments to create critical digital tools needed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Today, US Digital Response has grown into a community of over 8000 pro bono digital specialists who have partnered with almost 300 different government and nonprofit organizations across the United States on projects that directly impact communities.
Prior to her role at USDR, she was head of the Ontario Digital Service, which she led in conjunction with her deputy minister level position of Chief Digital and Data Officer for the Ontario government. And before that, Hillary was the deputy executive director of 18F, a digital services agency in the US federal government that she helped to create back when she was a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2013.
Hillary is a great example of someone who thought she was headed to a long term career in Silicon Valley, found herself in a public sector role, and then fell in love with the impact that she could make in government.
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Ryan 0:05e, an organization founded in:
Ryan 3:42as as a web developer back in:
Hillary H 4:31
Ryan 4:31, thinking back to Hillary of:
Hillary H 4:51
It's such a good question, I think, I mean at the time, so my next job after Arkansas, I had a boss who I joked that it was just this moment in time, you could literally pitch anyone with, you could say anything, as long as you ended with three words at the end. So I want to sell socks on the web, I want to do whatever it is on the web. And if you were doing it on the web, then, uh, you were part of the future. And it was really exciting. I mean, you know, at the time, I was helping, like I built the Secretary of State's one of their, you know, first HTML based websites in Arkansas. And it had all of the glorious things you would imagine in terms of the header that was photoshopped.
Did they animated GIFs on there, no?
Hillary H 5:41
We did not yet have animated GIFs or carousels or anything like that, that came later.
Hillary H 5:45
But it was, it was pretty glorious. You know, and whatever, I don't even think dream weaver was out yet, and it was before that. So we were putting it, pulling it together. And I was learning from those tools and you know, had dabbled in HTML. And anyway, I mean, at the time, we were really excited about the things that have subsequently gotten us in trouble, which is, how do you just get more things on the web? How do you turn the web from just a place where, you know, there's information, there's brochures, to something that can actually help people? So we were putting PDFs online. You know, and figuring out, okay, well, these are fillable. That's the, that's the first, that's a good step. We were doing press conferences with RealPlayer, you know, and getting audio on the web. So there was some really, there were interesting things happening that kind of, you can look now and see, okay, that was heading toward egovernment, that was heading toward what then became, I think that for me, the transition from egovernment to digital government, if you will, was, the difference being, wasn't just if we build it, they will come. You know, for a long, long time, it was just like, take this form, and put it on the web. And it didn't matter what it looked like, it didn't matter if it was easy to use, it was the only game in town. And then we realized that people weren't coming. And that was really, I think, the big shift around digital government and the bringing digital approaches and a human centered piece like, to me it's the user centered, the human centered piece that made that shift to digital and digital services. I don't, I don't know if I could have called anything that happened 25 years ago, other than there was just this march to... to do better, and to try to get more online, try to get more in the hands of people who needed it. I think that's been the evolution of egovernment, digital government, better government.
Ryan 7:46s, early:
Hillary H 8:29Response was started in March:
And was this specifically around kind of COVID response, like public health, kind of online initiatives?
Hillary H 9:19
It was yeah. What they quickly found was that, I mean, it was COVID, but it was also all of the fallout. So think about benefits access, think about housing, think about folks getting kicked out of their home because they didn't know where to find the information for or how to make their next payment of certain things. So it was... it was COVID. But it was also the fallout of just the pandemic.
Yes. And government having pressures on it like I've never had before.
Hillary H 9:47
Absolutely. So one of the, you know, a lot of the early projects that USDR did, we've built some pretty incredible things over three years, but also we've just connected public servants with tools to have at their fingertips that open their eyes, like AirTable, you know, training somebody, Okay, here's, here's what this tool can do for you. They use it in one use case and then see, oh my gosh, my whole job has just changed because I have access and understanding and knowledge of this tool. So there was a lot a bit, there is a big push we, my colleague, Melissa was just at Grace Hopper, doing a workshop on low and no code tools, and the power of those, especially in situations like that.Ryan:
So we've done a ton of work in that area. But the big asset that USDR has now three years later, is that volunteer core. So there are more than 8500 technologists that have said, I have skills. I have time. If you can put me on a project, I'd love to help. That's incredible.Ryan:
So over three years, the organization has done more than 400 projects with governments. They've put more than 1200 of those volunteers to work on projects, most of them have done multiple projects, because they love it, they hooked. And it's it's pretty, it's pretty incredible to see that energy. Still, really still maintaining both in the ecosystem and with volunteers. We still have double digits signing up for our, we call them hand raisers, filling out our form every week.Ryan:
15 to 50 people, every single week who hear about us who find out a little bit more and who still want to, they're craving that impact, they're craving a place to, you know, be able to help.Ryan:
And are these, are these kinds of short term types of projects where, are they paired up with somebody in government to work with the team? Or are they developing something kind of internally themselves, and then bring it in? Or is it a mix of both?Hillary H:
It's mostly government that comes to us fills out our intake form, or comes to us somehow, saying I have a problem, I have a need. We have a, you know, a little bit, a little over 30 people on staff. And those folks are running our programs and running our rapid response and running our volunteer engine to be able to then interface with those government partners and say, Okay, we understand this is the problem that you need to solve. We're going to help you scope that in a way where this is your first best step, you know, because we know that our volunteers are most successful on those probably eight to 12 week projects.Ryan:
Right, yeah.Hillary H:
So we want, you know, and it's, it's just a fabulous excuse, because all of us in this movement have been shouting from the rooftops for years, like start small. So this is the perfect way to actually force them to start small and say, Yes, we hear you, this is what you need. This is the problem you need. Let's scope it in a way where you get benefit very, very quickly. But you'll understand the next thing you need to do.Ryan:
Yeah, and I mean, that problem definition space, I find is the trickiest thing in government, right? Since I think a lot of people in government and for perhaps maybe good reasons, are kind of naturally inclined to jump to solutions, right. They're very solution focused. And I think a lot of institutional incentives move in that direction. And getting people to kind of hang out in the problem space a bit longer, is tough. And this makes me think about kind of the issue around talent, right? Because we talk so much around, you know, talent in digital government. I mean, I'm wondering, you know, number one, do you see this kind of volunteer initiative as potentially being a talent funnel to bring people in? And I guess, just more broadly, you know, you, this is something I know you're passionate about is how do we get kind of good people with the skills we need into the public service? What do you think the state of that is right now? I mean, is this getting easier? Is it getting more difficult, you know, what, what's the play around trying to be able to bolster the talent that we need to be able to achieve our, our digital ambitions?Hillary H:
Oh, my goodness, there's so many questions in that question. So I'm going to attempt to, to answer a few of them. But we are absolutely, I don't know if you can read my shirt but you know...Ryan:
Help build a government that keeps up.Hillary H:
I love it.Hillary H:
We are a capacity building organization. Like, Jen got on stage yesterday with her state capacity shirt. That's our sweet spot. You know, we want to build capacity, not in dependency, we want to scrub in. And we want to, we want to help you understand you know the little bit more about the tools that are going to help you be successful, about the skills that are gonna help you be successful. But we want to we want to get out. But also we understand that if we do an engagement, there's an opportunity for folks to come back and say, Oh, we've seen the light. So help us. So we actually just announced a talent initiative a couple weeks ago. And we are actively exploring this space and looking for partners who are interested in leveling up. So it's not exactly training, it's not exactly skill building, but our work in terms of DADS that showing up and that surge capacity, lets folks see the potential of having a small digital team that's just off and running and empowered to get something done. So they do come back and they say, I need more of that, we, you know, we need more, we need to do more user research, we want to understand how we can do procurement better. And we probably do need to build a digital team, so help us think about that. So we're actively in this space, not necessarily as a recruiter, but as you know, folks that have been through it and understand best practices, and can help you understand the team you need, to really think about, you know, not just the job descriptions, but what is going to set them up for success.Ryan:
What needs to happen around that team,Ryan:
to set them up for success. So you know, it's, it's job descriptions, and you know, how we can help you hire, how we can help you think about your interview sessions and your interview panels and who needs to be there. But then also onboarding and setting those folks up for success once they're there. Plus any of the training and inception that needs to happen around them. So we really are trying to play in that whole space. We also are very much a talent funnel. So I said, we've put about 1200 folks, you know, on projects, we put into work over the last three years. It may not sound like a huge number, but if you actually do the math, 5% of those 1200 Folks are now in public sector jobs.Ryan:
I was gonna ask you, if you know, if any of them kind of Yeah, they've got so excited. Right? And they want to go in?Hillary H:
Absolutely, and they want to go in, they want to do more. They want to show up.Ryan:
And it's pretty incredible.Ryan:
Yeah, if my mental math is right, that's, you know, 60 people, right. And that's, and that's not nothing.Hillary H:
That's not npthing, it's not trivial.Ryan:
Yeah. And so is it, you know, for the volunteers you're getting, I'm assuming most of these people are coming from the tech sector in kind of one shape or form or another? Is it a tough sell for them, initially? I mean, is it like, do you find it a hard... and, and also thinking back to your roles in Ontario, and also the US government, I mean, is it a tough sell to get people to, whether it's a Silicon Valley company, or they're kind of a civic technologist, to say, hey, kind of come into the big machine to work on this? Or do you find people are eager to come in?Hillary H:
I think, because we are very explicit that we are doing that, the, the hard work of scoping this down to something that is achievable. Once they realize all they have to do is like show up, right? So their brains, their experience, their empathy, to understand that who they're working with, they just want to help them solve a problem. It's a, it's a pretty easy sell. Because we're not asking them to change their career. We're not asking them to go for a tour of duty. We're saying, Hey, do you have a couple of months where you'd like to work part time and help get something done?Ryan:
And have a tangible problem to solve?Hillary H:
Yeah. I mean, I think this is a real key challenge, right? Because, you know, we've heard even at the conference this week, you know, government's having challenges getting people in. But I think to your point, part of that is, you know, because the pitch has been, hey, we have this position available, come in just as like a public servant into the big machine, versus we have this problem to solve, you have the skills to help us solve it. But it requires a lot of work to be able to do that, right?Hillary H:
And we're clearish... it requires a lot of work. We were just at the Grace Hopper conference. And so there were a lot of young folks starting their career, who we got to chat with. And it was actually a complete side tangent, but it was the first time Grace Hopper ever put together a public interest tech pavilion. So US Digital Response was there but the booth next to us was Tech Talent Project, friend, you know, friends and friends and ecosystem organizations. Next to them was the US Digital Core at a GSA next to them was USDS. Next to them was Coding It Forward, which was setting up internships and early stage- early career opportunities. So we were there for the first time as an ecosystem, able to sort of have these conversations with folks and say, Oh, this is where you're at in your journey. Go talk to them. So that was incredible. But one of the quotes from, I think she was an engineer at Google. You know, she said, this is incredible, to have a place to sort of funnel some of my excitement and energy, but not have to change my career and not have to give up what I've worked really hard to get as an engineer at Google. So it's, it is I think it's... once folks understand the model and understand what they are, quote, unquote, signing up for. That's a pretty easy sell with the benefit of they've dipped their toes in the water and you could get hooked.Ryan:
I mean, I was an Innovation Fellow in the Obama administration for six months. You know, I was like, Okay, six months, I can do that. And then I'll go back to my job. I was adjacent to government. I'll go back to my private sector job. And here I am a decade later.Ryan:
You were,Hillary H:
A decade of public service.Ryan:
I was gonna say you're a case study of somebody who falls in love with the problem enough that they decide to stay. You know, so speaking of your career path, and one of the things I'm interested to get your perspective on, you know, you've now kind of led digital change initiatives in various jurisdictions. You know, in the US, in Ontario, you're now working for a nonprofit from kind of that angle. One of the things I always wonder about in kind of the digital government space is how much of this is kind of a toolkit that we can take and kind of apply anywhere versus how much of it is context specific, you know, how much of it is has to be nuanced or adjusted for the realities of that jurisdiction? Curious, your take on that, and kind of where you fall on those two sides of the spectrum?Hillary H:
I think I have probably ebbed and flowed around that question, especially through my six years in Ontario, because it was incredible to see the power that I had in that small but mighty organization. And yet to understand that for the first three years 2017, 18, 19, we were doing incredible work. We did so many things, we shipped so many things, we built ontario.ca into a platform that folks wanted to be part of. And from a... I think transformation perspective, or from a longevity perspective, we hadn't yet sunk into the machine, right? Yeah, we did, we wrote legislation. Incredible. My role was turned into a statutory role, the Chief Digital and Data Officer, which meant I got to sit at Treasury Board, I got to give the President of Treasury Board advice on whether projects were ready for investment, whether they should be on the agenda. So we you know, we got into the machine. But still, folks didn't understand like, why we were set up the way we were set up, why we were organized the way we were organized, what allowed us to be lowercase, agile. And then March 2020 happens.Ryan:
And I mean, it... the team burned itself out at both ends of that candle. Absolutely. And we've worked really hard to get them back into a place where they weren't burnt out. But the silver lining was that folks finally had that aha moment of, Oh, I get it, I get what has allowed you to pivot from everything you were doing to basically becoming the Ministry of Health's digital team. And why we were able to ship self assessment apps in three days, why we were able to prototype something and understand is this going to work. Work with the Ministry of Health to then move forward on it. It was, I was like, the proudest sort of era of my career was to sort of have all of these other executives and people seeing for the, really, for the first time, which is a failure of mine as an executive that I wasn't putting it in their face earlier. But to finally sort of, you know, understanding, oh, my gosh, this is why this works, this is why this type of organization, at the center of government is necessary to then be able to push on all these other places across the organization.Ryan:
I mean, I've heard similar stories and seen that from other jurisdictions, right, that COVID was kind of this catalytic moment. Do you think it's going to be sticky, though? I mean, I, because one of the things I see a little bit of and I worry about is that backsliding, you know, now that the sense of crisis has abated, that people go back to the familiar pattern. And I'm wondering your kind of gut sense of how much of this change we saw in that moment during COVID is going to be sticky in the long term, and to what degree we have to keep pushing to make it sticky?Hillary H:
Well, then I think that's why I was thinking about the ebb and ebbing and flowing around that question. Because I think where I have landed after that, and especially now from the outside being a person that someone like me, and my old position can call for help or for therapy, you know, for those therapeutic outlets. And for advice. I think, right now, there is a vacuum. Everybody's talking about leadership, and it is a little bit about leadership. But it's also just a very basic vacuum around all levels of leadership, and knowing what to ask forRyan:
And understanding that in 2023, good government is digital government. So what do we need to do to make that a reality? And I think I'm still bullish on the need for central digital teams, because they do clear those cow paths, I'm still bullish on, you know, spend control and that the playbook that GDS gave us, however many years ago, 12?Ryan:
12, 13 years ago, yeah.Hillary H:
That playbook is still very much, I think, the play that as a, as an executive, you need to have in mind. But I also think... so we have a program at USDR, called digital delivery. And it's very generic, but kind of on purpose, but our focus areas are all of those things that, you know, people talk about being the troublesome parts of getting this movement to continue moving forward and getting that foothold that you were talking about and stopping the backsliding. So it is, user research, how do you do it? How do you always go back to understanding user need, because that is going to inform where you need to go next, the problem you need to solve, your procurement. It is procurement, and what good procurement looks like, not necessarily what a good RFP looks like, but what a good procurement looks like with a product owner that understands that they have to deliver something in the digital age and you know, with technical leadership that can call out what might not be great submissions or great forces that are pushing them. User research procurement, talent, we have to fix hiring, you heard that from from Jen, we have to get better at helping governments close their, both their capacity gap, but also just the, the machinery and the mechanics of it. The, the fact that there are what's the, what's the word? The, the there's the 20% vacancy rates, vacancy rates, yeah, we have to help governments figure out how to close those vacancy rates faster, there's no reason there should be a 25% vacancy rate, because you literally cannot get anything done. So our, our digital delivery unit, we're seeing the virtuous cycle between all of those focus areas, and the fact that if you poke on one a little bit, you're gonna get leaders heads turning in the right direction, and then they're probably going to want to focus on procurement, and then they're going to want to think, and then they're going to say, we, we really do need a team, we need to build our skills, we need to figure out capacity in this area.Ryan:
But I think that's a great list, though. It's a great action list. And that notion of getting leaders to ask the right questions, you've before come to the digital leadership program, we run for executives here in Canada. And I think that for me, that's one of the big ambitions, right is it's not that they're going to become an expert on these technologies. But how do you ask the right questions? Right? And how do you feel confident enough to ask those questions?Hillary H:
Or at least surround yourself with people who will.Ryan:
You know, I mean, and that's the thing I always thought about working in the Westminster system, it was always, always an education for me to be working with ministers and their offices. And I have said a few times, like, I wish that, you know, the Minister or the Chief of Staff, they need the Chief of Technology, kind of, you know, somebody that is with them in the same way that Chief of Staff is that is always fitting them some advice that is always saying, ask this question, because you know, that it's poking, because we can't expect that they're going to retain it all, that they're going to understand it all. But if they can have that person at their side, constantly reminding them, I think that goes, that's true for ministers, it's true for deputy ministers, it's true for our executive cadre.Ryan:
Yeah, I love that. Hillary, if people are interested in learning more about USDR, US Digital Response, where should they go?Hillary H:
USdigitalresponse.org We have some of our initiatives linked there, our blog is linked there. I think if you go to USdigitalresponse.org/talent, our announcement is there. And we've got some exciting things happening in 2024. I think will be, be our, I think our big, our ability, so we have this asset in the volunteer core, but our our real ability that I think is fairly unique, because we're not a vendor. There's not that interesting tension that happens when you're coming to the table as a vendor, we are able to create a safe space, you know, we're able to create, we're actually toying with this metaphor of the greenhouse. You know, we've built a greenhouse where we can help plant those seeds that will, and we'll see if they sprout, and we'll see what they turn into. But the the greenhouse is this safe space that I think is fairly unique for government partners, they you know, they can, they can ask, what might be perceived to be dumb questions, they can have ideas about use cases, but also understand that in this safe space, we might push back on them because we're about problem solving, it's not about getting them to a specific tool or a specific solution, we're going to help them solve their problem.Ryan:
As you said, it's a different relationship, because you're not a vendor in that case, and you can have those conversations in a, in a bit more of an honest way, as a result, which is great. We'll put those links in the notes for the show. And right now isn't just US citizens or US, US people who can apply, can get can Canadians apply for USDR if they're interested?Hillary H:
So we actually do have in our hand raiser pool, we have folks, I think, from all over the world.Ryan:
They're US projects, so our partners are in the US, US government partners.Ryan:
Yeah, but anybody anywhere in the world can sign up, wonderful. And maybe we'll be able to convince you to come north of the border as well, so.Hillary H:
Well, you know, who knows.Ryan:
Fingers crossed. Hillary, thanks so much for spending time with us really appreciate it.Hillary H:
Thanks so much, Ryan. Really great to chat.Ryan:
As someone who spent many years working in government, I believe to my core, that public service is important, and is worthy. If you're working in technology, go checkout organizations like US Digital Response, or here in Canada, Code for Canada, and put your hand up. It may be the most challenging thing that you ever do, but it's also an opportunity to have an impact at scale. And for those already in government, I really appreciate Hillary's comment, that good government is digital government. We shouldn't be afraid of new ideas. And one of the ways to do that is to make an effort to bring in outside talent, and be willing to seek out new perspectives. Surrounding ourselves with people who will ask new questions and challenge existing preconceptions, is so critical if we truly want to become user centered and agile. And that's the show for this week. Tell us what you think. Are you a technologist in the private sector? Would you be willing to put your hand up to help solve public sector problems? If you're watching on YouTube, tell us in the comments below, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the #letsthinkdigital on social media. And while you're at it, make sure to like and subscribe. And if you're listening to us on your favorite podcast app and you liked this episode, be sure to give us a five star review afterwards. And remember to go to letsthinkdigital.ca and sign up for our newsletter and to catch up on past episodes of the podcast. A big thank you once again to Forward 50 for letting us set up our onsite recording booth at their November conference to host conversations like this one. Today's episode of Let's Think Digital was produced by myself, Wayne Chu and Aislinn Bornais. Thanks so much for listening, and let's keep thinking digital.