Data-Smart City Pod: The State of Digital Government

Episode Summary

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews David Eaves, author and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Eaves recently co-authored the 2020 State of Digital Transformation report, and the two discuss the publication, trends in digital governance, cross-sector collaboration, and the importance of government transparency.

Episode Notes

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews David Eaves, author and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Eaves recently co-authored the 2020 State of Digital Transformation report, and the two discuss the publication, trends in digital governance, cross-sector collaboration, and the importance of government transparency.

About Data-Smart City Pod

New from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Data-Smart City Pod brings on top innovators and leading industry, academic, and government officials to discuss data, innovation, and government. This podcast serves as a central resource for cities and individuals interested in the intersection of government and innovations, the adoption of data projects on the local government level, and how to become data smart. Hosted by Stephen Goldsmith, former Deputy Mayor of New York,  Mayor of Indianapolis, and current Professor at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

About the Ash Center 

The Ash Center is a research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School focused on democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy. AshCast, the Center's podcast series, is a collection of conversations, including events and Q&As with experts, from around the Center on pressing issues, forward-looking solutions, and more. 

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Episode Transcription


Steve Goldsmith: Hello. This is Steve Goldsmith, Professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. And you're listening to Data-Smart City Pod, where we bring on top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.


Steve Goldsmith: This is Steve Goldsmith, Professor of Urban Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School for another in our series of podcasts on the use of digital solutions to solve public problems. I'm delighted today to be hosting David Eaves, a lecturer of public policy at the Kennedy School, but actually, maybe even more importantly, a tech entrepreneur himself who understands how to thread together the technology and the policy in order to improve state, local and federal governments. David runs an important group of international data officers he'll tell us about. Welcome, David.

David Eaves: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Steve Goldsmith: Before we deal with your interesting and important new report, I think our listeners would enjoy a little bit about your background. It's an interesting background in terms of the mixing of academic and practical and technology. So tell us a little bit about yourself please.

David Eaves: Yeah, absolutely. So I actually started my career off in the negotiation space, doing a lot of work advising on critical negotiations and very early on, many of those negotiations involved technology organizations and technology problems. And so, I started to drift in that space and then got recruited by one of my best friends who ended up working for Mozilla, the nonprofit that creates the Firefox web browser, to help them think about how to use negotiation skills to manage large open source communities.

And that's what really pulled me into the tech sphere. And from there, I just started to write a lot about what I thought governments could learn from open source communities and that come from the technology space writ large. And one thing led to another, I was recruited by Code for America to help teach their fellows. And that led to me being asked if I could train the Presidential Innovation Fellows at the White House. And then, all along that journey, this sounds funny, but I accidentally started a software company after I wrote a blog post about an idea and two people who I didn't know, but read it, called me up and said, "Hey, what if we build this?"

And that started off as a friendship and a hobby, and then turned into a company that had about 40 people and served 400 municipalities and states across North America. So I come at this space as a policy advisor where I've advised on open data and tech strategy to governments and as an advocate who's been advocating for tech change. And then also as a vendor, who's really worked with hundreds and hundreds of governments.

Steve Goldsmith: It's an interesting story. I don't believe I've ever interviewed an accidental entrepreneur. So that's a good start, plus particularly given the scale that you reached. David, you recently, and it's up on the Data Smart City Solutions website at the Harvard Kennedy School, coauthored a 2020 State of Digital Transformation, which I think it looks like an evolution from the digital convenings that you do at Harvard. First, a word about the convenings and then a general plug, if you will, about the State of Digital Transformation. And I've got some specific questions for you.

David Eaves: Oh, thank you. Yeah. So every June I work with my team here and then we partner with an organization called Public Digital and we try to invite leaders in digital transformation, particularly national and regional governments all around the world. So, people might be familiar with the Government Digital Service in the United Kingdom, which is a big leader in this space. Here in the United States is the United States Digital Service and 18F, but there's groups like this all around the world. And sometimes, they're not called a digital service. Sometimes they have different types of names, organizations. So in Rwanda, for example, the minister has been a real champion there, has a great team. Same in Togo, which there's a great article about Togo actually in this year's report, they were really a big shining star and their presentation blew everybody away.

And I think other countries like Bangladesh, which have done an enormous amount of important work and state actors like Colorado or California. So we try to bring them together and the main goal is to have a Chatham House Rules environment where people can really come and be honest about what's working and what's not working. And it just allows these people to both find colleagues and people who have shared experience and shared challenges and to both share best practices, but also share some of the hard lessons learned. And then the report is us pulling out those lessons and writing a series of articles about some of the good work that's happened and some of the hard lessons that have been learned.

Steve Goldsmith: It's a great report. I encourage people to take a look at it. Let's deal with a couple of the items, a fair amount of your report deals with responding to the COVID emergency. I'm interested in the parts of the report that use those examples, but also may be applicable to solving other problems at the state and local level, although I know that much of the emphasis was federal. Could you start with one of the phrases in the report, “working in the open” was just a terrific way to describe some of the benefits. What did you mean when you talked about working in the open?

David Eaves: Yeah, so this actually appears in several places. There's a great article that Lauren Lombardo, myself and Tom Loosemore, and Tom was one of the founders of GDS in the UK, wrote about what are some of the levers that these teams can grab a hold of that give them outside influence across the government, whether that's a state or a city or a national government. And one of them is called working in the open. And this is just the idea that you should be documenting your work and writing about it on blogs. You should be putting your code up on GitHub when possible. And this work in the open does several things. One is, it's an amazing talent recruiter. So I know for GDS, all sorts of players in the private sector would read what they were doing and said, "I've always wanted to come work in government. I just didn't know that there was a home for me, or if there were people who thought the way I did or use the types of practices that I did."

And by having these blog posts, suddenly, they were like, "Oh, I want to be there." And the same was true within the government. It was a great way to both scale the ideas and the work that they were doing so that other people were copying those processes. But also have people raise their hand and be like, "Oh, I've always wanted to do this work. I now see there's a group here doing it. Can I learn more? And can I come join your group? Or how do I extend the work of your group?"

So there's a real force multiplier for this work. And then the other is sharing the code and putting the code up on GitHub meant that sometimes developers would come and just making suggestions like, "Oh, there's a bug here or there's a problem there." But it also meant that other governments might occasionally show up and say, "Oh, this is really interesting work you're doing. Could we maybe copy it?" And so, I think people often see working in the open as dangerous thing, as they're going to get criticized, but there's actually a huge amount of upside that often gets lost and we try to chronicle some of that.

Steve Goldsmith: That's interesting. So, if you thought about subnational and national relationships, like Canadian and provincial or US and states or other places, even EU and its membership, how does the working in the open at one level of government benefit uptake at another level of government? And maybe it's a story you tell about Alberta Health Services in Ontario, maybe a way to explain that, but why don't you tell me?

David Eaves: Yeah, that's a lateral example. So this is a story in Alberta where in the early days of COVID, the help desk lines were getting overwhelmed by people who thought they had symptoms, weren't really sure. And so were calling the province and saying, "Hey, here's what's going on with me, do I have COVID? What should I be doing?" And so the health authority built this self-assessment tool. It was a very, very simple tool, very simple web tool, which just basically asks here's a series of questions and you answer yes or no to them. And then at the end, they give you a risk factor and give you some advice. And this had a very good impact on helping lower call volumes. And provinces of Ontario of course, had a very similar problem and they saw the work that Alberta had done.

And in this case, the code was not on GitHub. They actually called Alberta and said, "Hey, could we just get a copy of that tool? Can we get the code for that tool?" And after a little bit of hand wringing, the Albertans were able to persuade their political masters that this would be okay. And so they send it over and then Ontario then looked at it, tested it with some of their users, made some modifications. And in a very short order, were able to put a tool up on their website and they put theirs on GitHub. And that actually led to several other governments then grabbing that code, including some private tech directors. If you're running like Walmart, you actually want a self-assessment tool for your employees. So private sector actors showed up and forcing that GitHub repo and deploying it on their own website with their own language and appropriate context.

Steve Goldsmith: We talked maybe a month or so ago to folks in Maryland, the state government has a very advanced, both technology center and GIS geographic center. They were designing solutions related to COVID, but then that a region or group of cities or county could apply to their jurisdiction because all they would have to do is come up with GIS coordinates and layer some data and allow them to see what was happening place by place. You deal with some of the best national data officers in the world. How do you see ways that they could, if the larger jurisdiction had more resources and maybe more technical capacity, how would the open designs, the user testings, the GitHubs of the world, how could that advance science and solutions solving at the local and state level?

David Eaves: So there's two interesting answers to this question. So the first is I think at the national level, often the government suffers from not having a ton of direct responsibility and working with citizens. So much of the work is funding allocations to state or regional governments where the actual service delivery takes place at that level. But that doesn't mean that the federal government couldn't have a role. And one important place is you talked about GIS. One reason why GIS has become such an amazing data story is because so much of what happens in GIS has been, the data has been standardized and schematized, in large part because of the work of a dominant private actor who's providing a lot of the infrastructure for this, but that standardization makes it so much easier for us to share data across jurisdictions.

So many of the problems that we face in the 21st century now don't align really well to departmental or jurisdictional silos. We created these organizations to solve problems and I think many of these problems, like waste collection, they have been broadly solved that the newer problems are ones that don't fit neatly into buckets. And therefore, our need to be able to coordinate and share information across jurisdictions has just become absolutely paramount and here, data standards matter. And if there's ever been a place where national leadership would be helpful, or even international leadership's helpful, this is one place. The second, this is a little bit aligned with data standards, but it's slightly more subtle, which is often either the example I just talked about with that COVID self-assessment tool, 80 percent of what Ontario needed, Alberta had built. And what they really just did was tweaking on the edges of understanding the context of their population, slightly different language that gets used out there.

But wouldn't it be nice if rather than having every single jurisdiction build the same tools, maybe the national government provided some resources for building the 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 percent of the tool that's shared. And then having that be shared in the open so that the local governments can then go and leverage it and then adapt it to their particular context. Having a shared code base would allow you to then enforce data standards and maybe some other standards to make interoperability more likely. And it would also vastly reduce the costs. Maybe as a plug here, Robin Carnahan, who as we all know has just been nominated to become the new head of GSA. And Waldo Jaquith just wrote a report about what they called software collaboratives, where governments are doing this out of the Beeck Center, and I'm currently working on a grant sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation about what the governance of these types of cooperatives might look like. And so there's definitely growing interest for this. And then maybe the GSA might end up taking a leading role in doing some of this work.

Steve Goldsmith: Good. That's helpful. That'd be terrific if that could occur. Let me just ask you one last general question. In related to what you just said, data standardization helps solutions both be refereed to across agencies and across jurisdictions and between jurisdictions and community groups and the like. And I noticed in your paper a reference to the California digital crisis standard, I think I've got that right. So either with that, as an example or another, could you help us think through about data standards? There's lots of folks that have lots of ideas, when they come together in some organized way based on data will help provide an innovative insight. So I wondered whether the digital standard is that, whether California or otherwise, is one way to think about that? How to bring together multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions.

David Eaves: Yeah, the problem here is a lot of problems with getting solved at the local level, because we push the problem to that level. And that's often appropriate. The local level actually has a really good understanding of the problem, it knows the people. It can do the user intensive research that we so want from both our digital and frankly non-digital services. So the question is, how do we allow the information to scale up so that we can engage in systemic instructional responses, which often you want regional or national governments to be engaged in? And again, for me that the drive here is can national, or at least regional governments when giving funding to these organizations start to apply some simple strings just simply say, "We want to get this data from you on a monthly, bi-monthly, annual basis. And the data must be in this schema."

And that by defining that schema, you would then be forcing a collective output of data from say all the counties, basically in the same structure and same format using the same methodology. That right away would allow us to look across a whole state. And if it was a federally mandated one, across the entire country and be able to compare what's going on much, much more easily. Right now, all too often, these standards and schemes are left. Either they're undefined and so every county is inventing their own or they're defined at a state level, which is useful at one level, but that hampers us at a national level.

Steve Goldsmith: That was great. I said that was the last question, but actually, while you were talking, I have one other question that may not have a simple answer. So you deal with, in large part, not exclusively, national digital offices and digital officers. Most of my audience is state and local. What have you learned from the most sophisticated national organizations, like the UK, that you think a state or a city should adopt maybe more in the organizational or structural sense than in the data sense? Any last insights you'd like to offer here?

David Eaves: Yeah. I think cities are in a real tough bind because the resources are just so limited at the municipal level, particularly once you get from a mid-sized city down. I think we just have to be careful about how much we're asking from them. Maybe it's not an answer to your question, but one of the things I would love to see for example is, what is the single sign on solution for a whole country that a city can just grab and not have to pay for and implement across their entire website to authenticate citizens into any service? So that we're not paying over and over and over and over again, across 90 different services at the local level. There's all sorts of really simple things we could do to save them money that I think the opportunity to think that way is starting to emerge. But how should they organizationally be thinking about themselves?

I think one big challenge a lot of cities make, because there's a lot of new titles. There's the chief data officer, the chief digital officers, the chief innovation officers, the chief information officer. What you're really seeing, I think is at its worst is a civil war that's being prompted by the political leadership, which is they're looking at their city and they just see technology. But what they really should be seeing is listen, there's technology as infrastructure and then there's technology as emerging new ways, innovative ways of doing things and that these things actually need to work together. The way that you do new things is leverage the existing infrastructure. And the way the existing infrastructure gets better is by learning what's new and then being incorporating it in and displacing old infrastructure or building with this new infrastructure.

And so often, the CIO is in charge of the infrastructure part and we ask them to also do the innovation stuff and that can be hard because it's hard to do both those things. Or we create a chief digital officer and that person is doing the innovation and stuff, but they're in competition or not in a positive relationship with the CIO. And so I think we have to be really clear about what these roles are about and then make sure they understand that they have a symbiotic relationship. They need to be leveraging each other and understand where the lines are between them. And that would allow, I think, the cities to be better about doing innovative work while not making the people who are dealing with the infrastructure feel frustrated or left behind, but not also make the infrastructure people feel like the innovation work has to happen off the side of their desk.

Steve Goldsmith: That was encouraging. That would be terrific. Thank you so much. I'm with David Eaves today, entrepreneur and lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, whose new report is up on the Data Smart website. David, thank you so much for your time and insights.

David Eaves: Thank you so much for having me.


Steve Goldsmith: If you liked this podcast, please visit us at, or follow us @DataSmartCities on Twitter. Find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast was produced by Betsy Gardner and hosted by me, Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to serve as a central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data and innovation. Thanks for listening.