In recent years, governments around the world have been adopting a new way of building and improving public services. This approach bases its working methods and quality standards on most people’s experience of the internet, rather than most people’s experience of public services. It is heavily informed by design and technology skills that emerge from the modern internet industry, and is based on the founding principle that “user needs come first.”
This new approach has been driven, across a range of nations, by a group of public servants who share enough values and working practices that they can be meaningfully grouped together into a transnational public service movement. This movement can be called the “user-centered digital government” movement. It is most clearly instantiated in a range of digital service government organizations that share a similar naming scheme (e.g., the Government Digital Service in the United Kingdom, the U.S. Digital Service, and the Canadian Digital Service).
The biggest single change marked by these services is the in- sourcing of sophisticated digital skills into the heart of government. This means directly employing public servants who have skills in computer programming, digital design, agile project management, user research, data science and more. This partial reversal of the outsourcing orthodoxy that surrounded government technology until around 2010 has led to some governments having sophisticated in-house technology teams. These teams are primarily employed to deliver services, but they have a spillover benefit in that they give governments improved ability to deal with wider digital policy questions.
As the governments of high-income countries grow more skeptical of the “outsource key decisions” approach to government technology, government-facing technology providers are likely to focus their market growth in middle- and low-income countries, especially those with limited capacity to assess costs and technological needs. Whether these countries can leapfrog technologically depends — among other things — on the extent to which their governments can resist market pressures and lobbying, and grow their capacity to internally promote and retain digital skills.
Both governments and legislative assemblies can take steps to become active parts of this new user-centered digital government movement, as a way of acquiring the diverse skills that will be required not only to deliver user-centered public services, but also to know how to cope with external innovations.