In October 2013, President Barack Obama rolled out HealthCare.gov, the highly anticipated website for Americans to enroll in his signature Affordable Care Act. The overloaded system immediately crashed, infuriating millions of voters and dealing a political blow to the administration. When COVID-19 struck years later, federal and state agencies suffered similar problems when they tried building websites too quickly to schedule vaccine appointments and enroll people for unemployment.
Since 2020, the federal government has sent over $750 billion to support state and local governments with their response and recovery from the pandemic., , ,  This is a crucial moment to avoid past mistakes and improve how government serves the public. Yet states have struggled to recruit the technical talent they need to build and use modern systems effectively. States need skilled technical leaders to ensure that services are successfully delivered to the people who need them. Attracting these leaders will take time, but starting early will help deliver quick wins and make a crucial difference for achieving an administration’s top policy priorities.
This memo lays out actions states can take in the first 200 days of 2023 to hire the technical talent they need to build digital capacity and deliver 21st-century services.
Summary of opportunities
Appoint and empower leaders with modern tech expertise
Government technology leaders can set the tone for their agencies and put people and policies in place that enable progress — or stymie it. Administrations that build the most effective technical teams clearly articulate the skills, experience and leadership qualities they need, and prioritize recruiting leaders with these attributes. By quickly hiring the right technical leaders and bringing them to the table, states can put themselves in a position to succeed where governments often stumble.
Build digital services capacity
Americans expect a seamless and user-friendly online experience, whether they’re ordering a meal or filling out an application for government services. But the expertise needed to build digital services that meet these expectations is typically absent in government technical teams. This expertise includes:
By building capacity in these areas, states can improve how they deliver services. This means hiring technical leaders who understand the need for product management and design, for example, and training current staff accordingly.
Lay the groundwork for modern hiring practices
Attracting strong technology leaders does not require states to match industry salaries. When the government commits to best-in-class hiring practices, it can attract technical experts who are excited about government’s mission and motivated by the scale and complexity of its challenges. Governments, for example, have a long history of competing successfully against top law firms for talented lawyers.
States can strengthen their hiring process by collecting data on applicant experience, setting goals and hiring leaders who help the state build a competitive advantage in hiring. However, governments that attract technical experts often lose candidates when they cannot move quickly enough, are unwilling to let them work from home, or are unable to offer other forms of flexibility that the professional workforce has come to expect.
Build pathways into government for early and mid career technologists
Existing government technology teams tend to skew older than the overall state workforce. As older workers retire, the lack of younger replacements will make it harder for states to deliver services effectively. The pandemic has further increased the number of state employees retiring early.
Governments that are investing now in early and mid-career technologists will be better able to deliver services in the future. To attract talented staff, states could build remote friendly work policies, provide opportunities for career growth inside state government or pilot student loan assistance programs for technologists who commit to service.
The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the need for states to rely on technology to stabilize families, businesses and communities during a crisis. The demand for government support that emerged during the pandemic is unprecedented. In the first year alone:
States struggled under the weight of increased administrative burden and the need to serve people virtually as the technical systems that supported several of these programs buckled.
Since March 2020, the federal government has sent more than $750 billion to state and local governments to support their pandemic response and recovery efforts., , ,  While some states quickly took advantage of this money, many are still deciding where to invest it to strengthen service delivery and prevent future technology failures.
To meet the moment, states need to recruit and retain technical talent. Yet recruiting is one of the most significant barriers governments face in executing their delivery goals. The pandemic exacerbated this challenge with employee burnout, expectations of greater employer flexibility and a tight labor market taking a toll on states’ hiring efforts.
Many governments rely heavily on contractors to fill the tech talent gap, but this can be risky. While government can contract with companies to build and operate technology, they cannot outsource accountability for its success or failure. States need skilled internal technical leaders to oversee vendors and ensure that online systems work for the people who use them. Without experts who understand modern technology, the government is destined to repeat past failures.
There’s plenty of evidence that prioritizing recruitment and retention of modern technical talent pays off. California’s Office of Enterprise Technology created its open source COVID digital vaccine record in just six weeks. Six months later, this digital vaccine record was adapted for use in Washington State, Oregon and the District of Columbia. To date, the tool has been used by over 11 million people.
Similarly, in Minnesota, a new state product team worked side-by-side with Code for America to learn new ways of working, train existing staff and bring on new talent. The team piloted and successfully launched a new online application for five safety net programs, retired their outdated legacy application, and set the stage for more services to be added in the future.
Federal dollars create a timely opportunity for success or failure
In addition to the two COVID response packages Congress passed in 2020, states received a significant influx of funds from two additional federal aid packages in 2021: the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act. These aid packages are the single largest federal investment in state systems and local municipalities in U.S. history., 
Many states are planning to use these dollars to support technology investments, with most of it likely to go to private vendors to build and maintain new systems. Yet without using some of the money to improve internal technical capacity, state tech projects are more likely to fail. This will make it harder for states to successfully deliver programs and services using technology – and for those states to grow into digital leaders of the future.
KEY TECHNOLOGY OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE FIRST 200 DAYS OF 2023
Below are meaningful steps that state leaders can take at the beginning of 2023 to support the growth of technical talent and help achieve their program delivery goals. In the first 200 days:
- Appoint and empower leaders with modern technical expertise.
- Build digital services capacity.
- Lay the groundwork for modern hiring practices.
- Build pathways for early and mid-career technologists into government.
Appoint and empower leaders with modern technical expertise
Technical leaders are most effective when they’re engaged in policy discussions early, rather than brought in after decisions are made. To be effective, these leaders must have the skills and experience necessary to deliver 21st-century technology well. The following early hires can set the stage for successful delivery of modern government services.
Chief Information Officer (CIO)
The chief information officer (CIO) is often the highest-ranking technical decision-maker for a state or agency. They are typically accountable for all technical capabilities within a state, including customer-facing software applications, data storage strategy and email systems for staff. Some CIOs are gatekeepers for technology budgets, human resources and project approval.
A CIO’s skill and mindset have an outsized impact on whether a state delivers technology successfully. Historically, CIOs have been chosen based on years of experience with technical budgets and procurement in government. But in an age of rapidly advancing technology and consumer expectations, government needs CIOs who:
Beyond this technical expertise, CIOs need the leadership qualities to be successful in a government environment, like:
Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
Chief technology officers (CTOs) most often act as the lead technical strategists for the government. They’re most effective when they engage in improving technology that drives the customer experience. Empowered CTOs may decide or recommend technical approaches to solving business challenges or problems in technical platforms. They may also help define enterprise technology approaches and product roadmaps that serve staff and customers.
The most effective CTOs are deeply technical and act as enthusiastic and creative partners to frontline operational leaders. They have experience delivering customer-facing technology and significant leadership experience. Because CTOs typically lack the staffing and statutory authority that CIOs have, they also need to:
Chief Data Officer (CDO)
Chief data officers (CDOs) drive data strategy, manage data assets and build access to the accurate and secure data that internal stakeholders need to do their jobs. A great CDO will have experience managing data, setting strategy and delivering the technical tools needed to use data in a meaningful way. States that hire effective CDOs prioritize hands-on experience delivering software products and building data architecture, rather than a deep background in data science and research.
CDOs often work with antiquated systems and build support in their agencies for modern data approaches. It’s helpful if they have direct experience with digital transformation and are prepared to incrementally improve the quality of aging data systems. An effective government CDO:
Consider modern technical experience when filling critical program leadership roles
Agency leaders like secretaries, commissioners and their deputies, as well as chief procurement officers and general counsels, will at times be called on to oversee major technology projects. These leaders will also be asked to:
Ideally these leaders have some experience with effective modern technology and systems that deliver products and services to citizens.
Government leaders should know what good looks like, particularly when it comes to executing contracts and driving results that serve the public. When leaders do not understand the constraints and opportunities of technology, they can develop plans and implement agreements with vendors that increase risk of failure. Best practices in procurement decrease risk by ensuring that technology solutions are:
A savvy chief procurement officer can partner with a technical or program leader to ensure that these best practices are built into agreements from day one.
An important note of caution: The terms that vendors use may not reflect their actual practices. Successful procurement will require understanding what questions can help distinguish between a sales pitch and a genuine commitment to using modern technology for public benefit.
Consider making the state CIO a cabinet-level position
Executive leadership teams benefit from having a qualified technologist at the table during cabinet discussions. Making the CIO a cabinet-level position and ensuring the CIO is a modern technical leader can help ensure that leadership understands the technical implications of policy decisions. And it allows leadership to address technical issues as they arise.
Governments should not only hire leaders with modern technical expertise, but also provide the CIO with a direct line of communication to the governor. This helps ensure that:
Build digital services capacity
States can better deliver the user-friendly digital services that Americans expect by:
Consider launching a digital services team
To create a safe space for experimentation and innovation — something that doesn’t typically exist in government today — states can consider launching a digital services team. A digital services team is an interdisciplinary group that uses research and software development techniques to deliver high-quality government services quickly and affordably across government offices.
If a state already has a digital services team, 2023 is a great time to build momentum. The state can ensure that the team has the resources, staff and executive support it needs to make the government a savvier buyer and builder of technology solutions. And the team can be deployed to work on the state’s most intractable technology problems or most important policy goals. Typical roles on a digital services team include:
Colorado started its digital services team in 2019 with seven staffers. In its first three years, the team:
Today, the team has a staff of 11, which will grow to 20 in the coming months. They work on some of the most high-profile projects in the state, including universal preschool and behavioral health services.
Some states place their digital services team within their IT agency, while others place it in the governor’s office. Best-in-class teams are able to:
States interested in building a digital services team can use the guide in Appendix A as a reference.
Hire diverse technical teams and leadership
Government must build products and deliver services that work for everyone. Governments that do this should ensure that their technical teams reflect a diversity of lived experiences and perspectives — and that they engage users throughout the software development process. This is fundamental to creating technical systems that reflect the needs of a state’s communities. The most effective technical teams reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.
The United States Digital Service (USDS) was born out of the failed launch of HealthCare.gov in 2013 and has continued through three presidential administrations. The USDS has worked to ensure that its staff understands the varied experiences of the public. While the composition of its workforce varies, it exceeds private sector benchmarks for the diversity of the tech workforce. This is true for its leadership and frontline teams.
Upskill existing staff in modern technical competencies
While hiring new technical staff is an important way to address skill and experience gaps in government agencies, it isn’t sufficient. The most effective governments invest in training their existing technical workforce to build their long-term digital capacity. Key skills to develop include user research, agile or iterative software development practices, product management and flexible vendor management. States could gain early momentum in 2023 by focusing on one or two areas to build critical skills. The most successful states:
Continual investment in employees improves the outcomes of projects and provides a growth path for civil servants.
Add procurement expertise to the state’s technology team
When it comes to successfully handling large IT contracts, governments have faced major challenges. Contracts are typically either too large or too rigid to allow for effective software development and often increase the risk of failure. State agreements with vendors often take months or years to complete. And they either place the vendor in a position of power or create an adversarial relationship from the start.
Failures of government technology procurements may be due to arbitrary rules and processes. Yet many are also the result of not having procurement staff familiar with the practices of effective technical contracting. Governments need procurement teams that know what good tech looks like. To get better results and help a state hold vendors accountable, procurement and technology experts can partner to find the right vendor and craft agreements. More information on critical procurement opportunities for states in the first 200 days of 2023 can be found in the procurement memo.
Lay the groundwork for modern hiring practices
To compete with private industry and hire qualified, motivated technical workers, government can focus on:
Hire a tech-literate chief people officer (CPO) to attract, hire and retain up-to-date technical and product talent
Consider appointing a chief people officer who can help the state’s technology leaders understand their technical skill gaps and how to address them. Successful CPOs are transformative leaders who focus on recruiting a modern technical workforce and making state government a place where technologists want to work and grow. This proactive approach shows current and potential staff that they are a priority and positions the state to solve current and future talent gaps.
The expertise of the CPO is distinct from the state’s human resources (HR) leader. The head of HR ensures that the state’s hiring and employment policies and processes are legally compliant and well documented. They often oversee a significant number of staff and handle some of the most intractable personnel challenges for the state, from union negotiations to addressing employee performance issues. The HR leader often holds important institutional knowledge and the state can’t operate without them.
The CPO works collaboratively with the head of HR to support recruiting and employee development. In some places the leaders are peers; in other cases the HR lead reports to the CPO. A strong and trusting relationship is paramount. The CPO oversees areas that are critical to improving the state’s ability to compete for technical talent, including:
In the first 200 days, a CPO can be empowered to identify and address one or two problems that have alienated state employees in the past. Boston took this approach and in the first three months of hiring their CPO closed several loopholes in the family leave policy and implemented a hybrid work policy. These simple but meaningful changes made a big difference for staff and required no new financial investment on the part of the city. Boston’s CPO also quickly implemented a transit benefit idea generated by an internal employee resource group, which was an effective way to show employees that their voices are heard.
The most effective CPOs will:
They will also understand how to turn a big ship by setting strategy and chipping away at problems with a long-term vision in mind. And they will be passionate about the role of people in that process. It’s helpful for a state CPO to have firsthand experience with the challenges of hiring in government and to be able to use that experience to drive change.
Involve subject matter experts to qualify candidates
An important best practice in technical hiring is pairing a subject matter expert (SME) with an HR professional to review job applications. Together, they can identify a qualified pool of candidates while also ensuring a fair process that’s compliant with state hiring rules. This can help ensure that the specific experiences described in the resume — such as expertise in certain programming languages or platforms — can be accurately assessed against the minimum and desired qualifications for the role.
When SMEs are not engaged during application review, a qualified technologist may be evaluated based on their ability to meet the requirements of the application process, rather than whether they have the skills and experience required for the role. This is particularly true when technologists with no prior government experience are applying for roles. Expectations for government resumes vary considerably from what is typical in the private sector. Government resumes are often more than double the length of industry resumes and have specific requirements for font size and page margin. Applicants are traditionally expected to mirror the exact language contained in the job posting in order to prove that they’re qualified for the role. Any deviation from these norms will result in an applicant being disqualified, even if they are ultimately the strongest candidate for the role.
At the federal level, the Office of Personnel Management piloted a Subject Matter Qualifications Assessment (SME-QA) approach with 42 different agencies. This approach increased equity by ensuring that all qualified applicants got the chance to compete for a role. It also reduced overall workload, because positions were more likely to be filled, instead of needing to be reposted because an entire slate of candidates was rejected at the outset.
In the first 200 days, a state could build on federal experience and direct HR to launch a pilot that pairs SMEs with application evaluators for high-priority technical roles.
Identify priority hiring metrics and assess them against industry benchmarks
To improve performance, it is critical to collect baseline data, set measurable goals and check in on progress regularly. Unfortunately this is relatively uncommon in government, particularly when it comes to employee recruitment and retention. Unless state governments begin to set concrete goals for the hiring process, they will continue to struggle to hire diverse, highly skilled technical talent.
Government agencies that effectively hire often follow several best practices:
- Identify critical hiring metrics for technology roles.
- Collect baseline data to understand current state.
- Benchmark performance against industry standards.
- Use this information to set goals for improvement.
Hiring data can provide useful feedback to hiring teams and help them understand how to improve the applicant experience. The Partnership for Public Service’s Mobilizing Tech Talent notes that tech industry best practice is that it should take no longer than 30 days from the time a candidate expresses interest in a role to making an offer. This data can help improve hiring speed, candidate experience and qualification.
Best-in-class metrics include:
By breaking down the data by specialty, race and gender, the state can also identify previously undiscovered biases that get in the way of building their technical workforce.
Build pathways into government for early and mid-career technologists
According to our analysis of 14 state government tech workforce profiles, government tech teams tend to skew older than the state workforce as a whole. Governments that invest in early and mid-career technologists now will be in a better position to deliver service into the future. To do this effectively requires:
Engage with organizations that can connect agencies with early and mid–career technical talent quickly
A growing number of organizations across the country can help connect state and local governments with early and mid-stage technologists to improve service delivery now. Some organizations can connect states with volunteers, while others can work with agencies to place fellows in tour-of-service opportunities.
In the first 200 days of 2023, states could make progress on their critical technology needs by reaching out to one or more of the organizations below.
Allow a fully remote or hybrid work environment
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced employers to think differently about how to attract high-quality employees who have reassessed how they spend their time. Remote work is becoming common in the tech workforce because digital tools have made remote work more possible.
States offering greater flexibility for remote work will be able to reach more technical talent. While government can’t compete with private-sector salaries, states can provide opportunities for staff to work remotely at least some of the time. This is important because new data suggests that workplace flexibility is more important to the technical workforce than pay. To maintain productivity and a positive work culture, states will also need to invest in the tools and training necessary for employees to work efficiently and effectively from a distance.
BEYOND THE FIRST 200 DAYS
The first 200 days of 2023 will be a critical time for states to showcase priorities, make ambitious investments and achieve quick wins that build momentum. However, it is the subsequent hard work that will build their 21st-century digital capacity. This is particularly true when addressing the state’s technical talent gap, which requires long-term commitment and prioritization.
Create a map of the hiring process, identify choke points and prioritize efficiencies
Building a hiring process that provides a best-in-class candidate experience is critical to the government’s ability to recruit technical staff. A map of each step of a candidate’s hiring process can help a state agency fashion a hiring process from the applicant’s perspective. It records a candidate’s every step and interaction during hiring, and often how long each step takes.
These journey maps are still relatively rare in government, but the private sector uses them frequently. The simple exercise of creating a journey map helps identify common points of confusion and process bottlenecks. This list of problems can be used as a roadmap for improvement.
Align position titles, descriptions and qualifications for critical modern technical roles with the private sector
Most technical job titles and descriptions fail to clearly communicate the vision for the role and the opportunity for impact. This can be due to legal concerns or a lack of understanding of technical roles. Because job titles for state technical jobs are often different from what they are called in the private sector, it can be difficult for candidates applying to government jobs to understand if their private sector jobs qualify them for the position. States that hire digital talent effectively have often aligned roles with modern job titles and descriptions for roles like:
The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University and U.S. Digital Response are partnering with other experts in modern technology to build basic job descriptions for each of these roles.,  HR professionals can also collaborate with modern technologists to make job descriptions clearer.
Connect with colleges, universities and technical schools that train technologists
While most new technology graduates will launch their careers in the private sector, many seek a more meaningful mission. But government typically hasn’t had a strong presence at technology career fairs and recruitment events.
To open the door to new and diverse talent pipelines, states can work to build mutually beneficial relationships with institutions that train technologists. Through these relationships, states can identify creative ways to engage new graduates in government service — from participation in career fairs, to apprenticeships, to student loan forgiveness based on years of service.
One important resource for states is the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN), which has brought together nearly 50 colleges across the country to build the field of public interest technology and to help support young technologists interested in public service.
APPENDIX A: Creating Digital Service Teams
Digital service (DS) teams are interdisciplinary, collaborative teams that use technology, research and software development techniques to deliver high-quality government services quickly and affordably. They often help other government offices do the same. Several states already have DS teams, including Georgia, New Jersey and Colorado.
COVID-19 upended the way government serves people, swiftly shifting needs and expectations toward online services. At the same time, the pandemic exposed aging technologies at all levels of government, making clear a critical opportunity to improve service delivery for residents by building digital services that are accessible, responsive, secure and easy to use.
To take advantage of this opportunity, states may consider creating digital service teams to help their government meet constituents’ modern expectations of government services. In this Appendix, we introduce the value of DS teams in state government, outline key elements of high-impact DS teams, and offer ongoing support for states looking to stand up a DS team of their own.
Successful DS teams have:
- An experienced leader who brings strategic vision and promotes collaboration;
- Team members with modern software development skills, as well as skills in navigating government procurement and other processes;
- A mandate that empowers the team
- Budget and resources to move quickly and with autonomy.
The Georgetown University Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, U.S. Digital Response (USDR) and Tech Talent Project can help with recruiting, technical assistance, research, peer-learning and sharing opportunities to support states in creating and sustaining an effective digital service team.
The value of a digital service team
Government services should be accessible, responsive, secure and easy to use. Digital technologies can play an important role in building these types of government services.
Digital service teams are interdisciplinary, collaborative teams that use technology, user research and software development best practices to design and implement high-quality government services quickly and affordably, and often help other government offices do the same. DS teams help transform government services for the better across policy domains by centering those services around the people who use them.
Several states already have DS teams that are building track records of success. For example:
Creating a high-impact digital service team
The Beeck Center and USDR have worked closely with DS teams in states across the country. Through this work, they have identified a couple of core attributes of successful DS teams.
1. Strong, experienced leadership
DS teams need a leader who can incite the technical shifts necessary for transforming services across a state.
The right leader for a DS team isn’t just a technologist — they also understand policy, politics and management. They recognize that improving services with digital tools is about much more than just technology. It’s also about people and process. Effective leaders of DS teams are:
2. A team with modern skills
DS teams bring new skills and ways of working into government. High-impact DS teams have teammates with experience building popular, high-traffic digital services for mobile and web using best practices in modern software development. They also have teammates with expert knowledge in programs, as well as procurement and other complex government processes.
Building a team with the right mix of expertise often means creating new job descriptions and doing some external recruitment. Below are some examples of the types of roles that DS teams tend to recruit for externally and internally.
Roles that may need to be recruited externally
While these roles are commonplace in the private sector, they are often new jobs and require new descriptions in state government:
Roles that may be recruited or trained internally
These roles are generally found in abundance inside state government, though job descriptions may need to be retooled to meet the specific needs of a DS team:
3. A clear mandate
Improving services across a state is more than a discrete technology challenge — it’s an organization-wide effort involving many people and processes.
Successful DS teams tend to have a mandate and clear authorities that enable them to work swiftly and collaboratively across agencies to improve services. Components of an effective mandate may include:
4. Budget and resources
DS teams are able to work best when equipped with the resources needed to support their work. Resources that high-impact DS teams often rely on to thrive include: