Digital Services Playbook for State and Local Government

Why municipalities should follow the Digital Services Playbook

IT managers at state and local agencies would be well served to familiarize themselves with the federal government’s new guide on implementing digital citizen engagement services, a former state chief information officer said.

The U.S. Digital Services Playbook, published online by the month-old U.S. Digital Service (USDS) team, boils the process of standing up engagement projects down to 13 “plays,” or steps. It’s intended for use by federal as well as state and local government agencies, but the latter bunch needs the advice more, said David Taylor, vice president of state, local and provincial government solutions at Software AG and former CIO for Florida.

“I think in many cases, state and local needs this advice more so than federal for many reasons: One, there are a lot more state and local entities than there are federal, so if this is going to make things better, it will make a bigger splash in a bigger environment,” he said. “Also, the federal agencies tend to be large enough that they have access to, I think, a bigger talent pool.”

In other words, there are more rookies at state and local agencies, he said.

Starting with understanding what users need, the guide moves through suggested approaches, budget considerations and team building before getting into technical best practices in Play 8 (choose a modern technology stack). Each section includes an explanation, a checklist and key questions for agency managers to ask.

“It’s an excellent start,” Taylor said. “My first impressions when I read it were that it’s exceptionally well written, very brief, clear and concise. There’s a lot of best practice information out there that’s available to CIOs, but a lot of it is just very poorly written or complex. This just cuts to the ‘What do I need to think about?’ and ‘Can I have a real simple checklist?’”

Additionally, it will help agencies avoid the common mistake of going full-throttle into building apps without considering the big picture, he said.

“There’s a very quick leap from Step 1 – understanding what people need – and then going right in to producing it without thinking, ‘Where is this thing going to be five years from now?’” Taylor said.

When it comes to the technology that will help agencies better engage people, the playbook recommends using a modern technology stack and avoiding vendor lock-in.

“In particular, digital services teams should consider using open source, cloud based and commodity solutions across the technology stack, as these solutions have seen widespread adoption and support by the most successful private-sector consumer and enterprise software technology companies,” the playbook states.

Next, it suggests using a flexible hosting environment that can scale to accommodate demand and automating testing and deployments, which can “provide consistent and reliable protection against unintentional regressions, and make it possible for developers to confidently release frequent updates to the service,” the playbook states.

The guide also suggests  that agencies should manage security and privacy through reusable processes, meaning that they should use certified security components in each layer of one stack and then apply the same ones to other services.

But the playbook doesn’t cover everything, Taylor said. In fact, USDS purposely left room for improvement. The guide links to a GitHub page where users can suggest changes.

Gaps Taylor found include a need for more specifics on application programming interfaces (APIs).

“When you’re developing an application in the modern world now, you really need to think about exposing your data and the functionality of an application through service interfaces both internally and externally,” he said.

Other missing components, he said, include tips on long-term cost and maintenance of applications; documenting business processes, not just code; and developing and maintaining metadata.

Also absent is a discussion about integration.

“If you were to follow the 13 steps, you would end up building a stand-alone application that solves a particular business problem, but you wouldn’t be by design addressing how you connect other systems and make that data and services available to other businesses, other people, other agencies,” Taylor said.

For instance, he said, if an agency has 20 applications with different business rules, it should have a business rules engine that stores all of them so  applications can tap them as needed.

Although the guide is designed for citizen engagement, it’s also applicable to internal application development, he added, because the best practices can be applied generally to any app.

The White House announced the formation of USDS on Aug. 11.  Composed of tech experts who helped fix last year, the team will establish standards to bring government digital services in line with the best commercial services and work with agencies on designing, developing and operating citizen-facing applications.


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