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Commentary: Five Years of Digital Services in San Francisco

“Our early strategy was to say ‘YES!’ to everything. Typically, IT departments were known for saying ‘NO’ to every request and we wanted to differentiate ourselves. We never gave an outright ‘no.’ If we were asked to do something unrealistic or something that would not benefit users, we said ‘We’d love to help understand the problem you’re trying to solve.’”

This column is excerpted from It’s been edited lightly for brevity and style.

This month marks the five-year anniversary of SF Digital Services. This post is a look-back over the past five years and some of our big moments, as well as a look to what the future could hold (hint: it could involve you!)

Year 1: Formation

In 2017 San Francisco had never had a chief digital services officer before, and while the Digital Services Strategy set out a vision for the future, there was no road map for creating this kind of change in the city. The first question was what kind of team should this be? Should it be a small team that advises city departments on digital projects, or should this be a team that builds digital services? After listening to departments, we decided on the latter — to make change happen we had to show what good looks like, and establish credibility by delivering on the vision for truly digital services.

For context: San Francisco is a highly federated organization, with around 50–60 departments (depending on who’s doing the counting) and no strategic center. As I’ve written about before, this challenges the received wisdom on approaches to digital transformation in organizations.

To bring a team together, we found a group of 15 staff who were already working on web and digital projects in the IT department. After a monthslong bureaucratic process to reassign them to Digital Services, we had our new team. We didn’t start with a blank slate though — part of the negotiation to reassign staff included Digital Services taking responsibility for the legacy website and basket of legacy apps.

We also took on existing examples of good digital services: the city’s flagship affordable housing application service, DAHLIA; and the Business Portal, a site to help small businesses navigate city services. We helped the Office of Short-Term Rentals set up a way for Airbnb hosts to register with the city, and our first year also saw the beginnings of our cannabis permit application service.

Years 2 & 3: Foundation

Now an official team, we moved to a new office space and started to hire new people to join us.

Our early strategy was to say ‘YES!’ to everything. Typically, IT departments were known for saying ‘NO’ to every request and we wanted to differentiate ourselves. We never gave an outright ‘no.’ If we were asked to do something unrealistic or something that would not benefit users, we said ‘We’d love to help understand the problem you’re trying to solve.’ It worked. We were met with reactions from surprise to relief to excitement. People wanted to work with a team that would help them, and we were happy to help.

As a team, we instilled agile ways of working, and established some team values:

  • Build with San Franciscans was a value that put our residents at the heart of our work.
  • Help each other be successful spoke to our team culture of supporting each other. There is no space to be territorial.
  • More making, less talking encouraged the team to try new ideas and use prototypes to help make decisions.
  • Be honest with ourselves, our team, and our city. This value set our intention to tell truth to power, and to cultivate trust.
  • Work hard, laugh often was a nod to the stressful nature of the work (at times) and the need for balance.
At the same time as building the foundation for our team, we also built the foundation for the city by designing a new city website that would rationalize the 211 separate websites in San Francisco. While we knew that a Digital Services team would be about more than just websites, we also heard loud and clear that a basic, modern, functioning website was table stakes for our team. It would help us establish credibility and give us the technical platform on which all other digital services would be built. In May 2019 we put live. It looked a lot different back then, but it showcased a new user-centered approach for the city and provided a faster, easier, and more accessible way for the city to reach residents.

There was cake to celebrate the launch!

At this point we also had some experience delivering on different permit types for the city. We worked on an online application process for getting a permit to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) — also known as an in-law unit — and we’d worked on cannabis permitting, and online registration for short-term rental hosts. We were building our knowledge in permitting and started to support the city’s new permit center.

A newly built facility, the Permit Center at 49 South Van Ness would bring the city’s many permitting departments together, and provide an in-person “one-stop-shop” experience for people looking to get permits for construction, businesses and events. Our service design team helped define the in-person experience and brought the vision of a “streamlined, efficient, and friendly” permitting experience to life, through live prototyping.

We also argued for a bigger transformation. While the in-person permitting experience would improve, the city would still suffer from siloed departments, systems that did not inter-operate, and a fractured digital customer experience. Others agreed, and we were charged with helping to overhaul the digital experience of permitting as well. This meant a time for huge growth for our team — the permitting project required us to grow as a team, from 20 to 35.

Years 4 & 5: Frenzy

Just as we started to get going on permitting, and was becoming more established, COVID-19 happened. I wrote a post in 2020 about the work we did during those first six months of COVID, and the team’s superhuman efforts to deliver critical information and digital services. Our deputy chief digital services officer also wrote about the experience of growing and managing a government digital team during the pandemic.

We have since built many more services and published many more pages of information. The pandemic has accelerated our work and showed just how essential it is to have robust digital platforms in place.

Digital Services is now a completely different team. We have matured, we have self-confidence that has been forged by high-stakes delivery, and we have robust platforms that we can reliably use to build digital services at scale.

Year 5 and beyond: Future

The city has 967 services. Only about 20 percent of them are truly digital (mobile-first, accessible, and digitally transactional). The other 80 percent is a mix of PDFs and in-person activities. Digital Services has touched about 5 percent of services. If we are to make close to 1,000 services digital, then we need to find a way to scale without growing the team infinitely. Certainly, there is room to grow Digital Services a little more — we are now hovering around 50 staff, including DataSF — but even if we doubled, we’d struggle to meet the demand.

By bringing together DataSF and Digital Services we are building the foundation for a more seamless data life cycle, and creating the space for policy and service decision-making to be data-driven.

The team has worked hard over the past five years to establish technology platforms that can power digital services. is the flagship, and in turn the site makes use of a design system and a forms platform (forms being, after all, the interface of government). We quite often use Airtable as a flexible database and light case management platform, but we’ve also integrated with other tools in use around the city, including Accela and Salesforce for permitting. We are building out our stack for managing language translations, and we rely on tools like SendGrid and Twilio for transactional notifications. Our Open Data platform continues to support data sets from around the city. In 2022 we will scale the implementation of an internal version so that non-public data sets can be used to power internal services and decision-making.

We also view our non-technical work as a kind of platform provision as well. Creating standards like the Digital Accessibility and Inclusion Standard, and our style guide give departments the guidance they need to build better services and meet the needs of San Franciscans. We are working on internal training and new job classifications, all of which provide the city with a platform for bringing in new talent and building internal capabilities. We are fostering communities of practice and building the connective platforms that departments can use to share what they’re working on.

By shifting our emphasis from simply building services to enabling departments to build their own services — with our help, and in line with our citywide standards — we are finding ways to scale without growth. Ultimately the federated governance model of San Francisco means that a large centralized team will rarely survive, and many see this as a good thing. It’s a challenge for government digital teams, which mostly have models of centralization. By becoming the builder of platforms, capabilities and standards, Digital Services will superpower city departments, and multiply its impact.

As we enter the fifth year of Digital Services it’s a time of leadership change. The city seeks a new chief digital services officer (CDSO) to take the team forward. It’s not an easy role, but the next CDSO will be building on a solid foundation with an extremely talented team that carries credibility and some core platforms. As well as a new leader, the team is starting to post jobs in all disciplines, particularly product management and data. If you are excited by the prospect of scaling digital services across San Francisco, and ready to commit to a hard-working team that puts residents first, then keep an eye on our job listings.

The journey of Digital Services in San Francisco has only just begun, and YOU could be part of the next chapter!

Editor’s note: Carrie Bishop’s last day at San Francisco will be March 4. The consolidated city-county is recruiting for her successor; see related article.
Carrie Bishop, a UK native, worked in technology there before coming to the U.S. two years ago and accepting the position of Chief Digital Services Officer for the city/county of San Francisco. Bishop blogs on The Service Gazette on