Skip to the content.

Goal 5: Build confident, empowered multi-disciplinary teams

“Technology is a product of the culture that builds it. ” - Kellan Elliott-McCrea, former Chief Technology Officer, Etsy

“It’s hard for me as a director when I don’t have IT project experience.” - User research interview with Eraina Ortega, Director, California Department of Human Resources

Our public servants are smart and dedicated. They want to spend their time on hard problems, and for technology to remove routine items from their plate.

Agency, departmental and technology leaders candidly told us about wanting to avoid the failure of bold initiatives. They told us about being scared by technical jargon, not knowing what’s possible or where to start, but being eager and willing to learn.

All state staff shared the need for an environment that supports learning and of the need for consistent support and guidance. Empowered teams need safe places to learn, where they can speak up, test new ideas and have tough conversations. This means acknowledging not only where we fall short, but also the risks of not changing. We must create spaces for empowered teams to build, release, learn and improve.

We also heard loudly that progress means bringing new skills, experience and talent into government. New, critical services like COVID-19 notifications were possible because we hired or partnered to bring designers, user researchers, data engineers and more into our teams.

We can’t form these teams without technology companies and the vendor community. When COVID-19 forced the state to drop the requirement for vendors to be on-site it became easier for the state to acquire skills, significantly increasing the pool of vendors with which to collaborate. Remote, multi-disciplinary teams allowed the state to experiment with and gain an understanding of what skills were needed, how these skills could be best obtained, and lastly, how they can be developed.

Technology does not solve problems alone. Successful departments and teams organize themselves around common goals, working across silos, from the bottom up and from the executive level down. Executives should build and create space for multi-disciplinary teams from the beginning. These teams are not successful when space for them is created and supported as an afterthought.

No one person has the right answers to the most important problems. More importantly, because change is a constant, the right answer today may not be the right answer in the future. We need to invest in the people, teams, and culture that will help continually learn and solve problems.

Knowing how to do this cannot be hard to figure out. But developing the people, skills and culture of continually learning and solving problems across all of government is a long-term goal. We need to celebrate and learn from the teams who are doing this well, and share that knowledge widely. We need to make it easy to create open spaces, build multi-disciplinary teams and hire the best vendors to complement our staff.

In the end, our people and teams are those who do the work. Together, they will build the infrastructure we need, understand the problems that need solving and deliver our vision of compassionate, human-centered, effective and efficient government.

Challenges to focus our work ahead together

Challenge 5.1: What do leaders need in order to confidently and successfully integrate program, operations and technology to continuously improve outcomes?

Why this matters:

  • Executives and leaders shared that technology is critical to their business and program operations and success. But often, they lack the skills and knowledge to confidently make effective decisions about how technology can be used to improve outcomes.
  • Executives and leaders also shared that they often work in environments without the peer or higher-level support they need.
  • Teams and departments find it difficult to make progress and work in a multi-disciplinary way without managers and leaders fluent in the core technology concepts that are critical to programs and businesses.

Challenge 5.2: How can we build stronger, integrated, multi-disciplinary teams?

Why this matters:

  • Technology is not an end but a tool to help improve government — and successful use requires collaboration and integration across disciplines.
  • Much technology capability is organized largely based on a historical IT structure focused on operations ( “keeping the lights on”) and supporting commodity technology, even as roles have increasingly intertwined with core programs.
  • There are few models for successfully incorporating “technology” skills into healthy, integrated teams. This includes models for working with vendors.

Challenge 5.3: How can we better invest in and develop our technologists?

Why this matters:

  • Strong existing technology leadership programs exist throughout the state but surveys indicate that they don’t fully meet current needs and there are gaps in the skills and training they provide, including on-the-job learning.
  • Competency models and job descriptions are inconsistent in practice. Some of this work has already started in areas like data.
  • Staff and managers are eager for additional training, and reported confidence in their ability to adapt to new technology with proper training.
  • Staff feel that systems are forced on them with little or inadequate training.

Challenge 5.4: How can we attract and keep the technology talent needed for 21st century government?

Why this matters:

  • Critical roles such as user researchers, designers, technical writers and data engineers are needed to achieve our goals and vision. We found it is very hard to recruit for these roles.
  • Other governments have developed strategies to successfully attract technology skills that include concepts of tours of service, alongside options to develop long-term careers.
  • Burnout is real. Technologists we spoke to are very mission-oriented and proud of their work, but onboarding, support structures and integration need to be improved.