A Framework for Building California Digital Services

While the report provides high-level recommendations, here are a few tactical areas that must be addressed in order for any of this to be effectively implemented.

A California bipartisan oversight committee, the Little Hoover Commission, has issued recommendations on how the state can bring a more customer-centric government to residents and visitors.

The report, A Customer-Centric Upgrade for California Government, calls for the governor and Legislature to designate a chief customer officer, which would be assumed by the secretary of the Government Operations Agency, and an internal digital services team “to help departments deliver services that work for Californians” that would reside within GovOps.

Specific solutions recommended include single sign-on to a personalized resident account, customized text and email communications, and a focus on open data and human-centered design.

From the report:

“Like the federal government has done, California too should invite the very best engineers, technologists and designers from the private sector to apply their creativity and ingenuity to help tackle some of the most challenging problems facing the state. And the governor and Legislature must create a home within the administration to welcome them in. Teaming with the new chief customer officers and their program colleagues, who in many cases already know what’s needed to solve some of the state’s most painful organizational and customer service problems, they could champion a new path for the state to tackle problems through small, incremental, but meaningful improvements. And in doing so, begin to reinvigorate California’s pioneer spirit in the 21st century, using 21st-century technology.”

While the report provides high-level recommendations, here are a few tactical areas that must be addressed in order for any of this to be effectively implemented:

Create an open source policy. The role open source has played on in-house government innovation shops, especially Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 18F and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), has been critical to their success. While there have been rumblings of support, California’s technical operations is severely lacking in its willingness to truly embrace open source. Failing to do this will deeply impact the next two recommendations.

Fix IT procurement. There has also been an effort to open up the procurement process beyond legacy vendors at the federal level, but California fails to a large degree to do this. While an in-house digital team is critical, the only way impact will scale is to bring in vendors that are less about legacy business models and more about agile, open innovation. Every state IT discussion or event I’ve been privy to favors entrenched, large-scale sales operations. While the UK was able to bring most, if not all of its digital operations in-house, the scale at which California needs support is much larger, and it’ll be a long time before the state can lure top-tier talent from Silicon Valley and other tech-centered areas to work for government, so it must rely on like-minded vendors.

Distribute the talent pool. If the state is serious about hiring the “best engineers, technologists and designers,” it must open distributed offices in other California cities, particularly San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. While 18F and USDS have lured some to Washington, D.C., Sacramento is not the nation’s capital and working for GovOps, or even the governor directly, is a far cry from the prestige of walking the halls of the Executive Office Building or White House.

Embrace the cloud. It’s unclear what the status of CalCloud is, but at one point there appeared to be an unwillingness to allow for non-government-managed cloud-based services. While security considerations must be taken into account, there needs to be more flexibility around allowing the use of third-party cloud offerings, especially those that don’t involve personal information.

The Little Hoover Commission report is an important resource for governments everywhere in understanding a new approach to addressing digital public services, and it’s great to see a state-sanctioned effort advocating this.

Let’s hope the governor and Legislature move quickly to enact their recommendations and the ones above.


Luke Fretwell is an entrepreneur and writer focused on civics and technology. He is the founder of the civic technology blog GovFresh.

Luke Fretwell is co-founder and chief executive officer of ProudCity  the founder of the civic innovation and technology blog GovFresh. He advises civic leaders and businesses on how to best leverage digital strategies to create more effective, collaborative governments. He has worked with a number of government-focused companies and media and has been involved in broad-focused community efforts, such as GovPress, CityCamp, CivicMeet, Agile Government Leadership and Open Source for America.