“Building a Digital Democracy – Lessons from the D5 London summit”


“Governments must keep up with the pace of technological change. That means offering the kind of services people want, in the way they want.” – Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, HM Government, UK

Last week, I had the privilege to participate in the D5 summit in London, as part of a three-person U.S. delegation. The D5, a group of the world’s most digitally-advanced governments, met for the first time to discuss common challenges and opportunities facing governments today and to share ideas and collaborate on solutions to these challenges. Representatives from the United Kingdom, Estonia, South Korea, Israel and New Zealand shared their experiences and successes, solidifying their commitment to strengthening, collaborating and sharing the technology ecosystems that enable their democracies.

As an observer, I was struck by the commonality of many of the challenges our countries face. The D5 nations have made tremendous progress in addressing these challenges using modern technologies, citizen-centric solutions, and thriving ecosystems of innovators within the private sector. Francis Maude opened the summit with his compelling and thought-provoking remarks outlining his vision and perspective on the imperative of building and sustaining digital government ecosystems, the successes of the UK government in this regard, as well as many of the ground breaking innovations implemented within the D5 nations.

Guided by the themes of Connectivity, Open Markets, and Teaching Children to Code, the D5 nations’ delegations shared their experiences and ideas.

In the area of connectivity, for example, the government of Estonia declared access to high speed internet a basic human right many years ago. This has revolutionized government services which are now “Digital First and Digital Only.” The country has thousands of wireless access points, with the number of cellular data connections exceeding the population of Estonia. All citizens have access to a digital certificate on their national ID card, that they use to digitally sign government transactions (such as voting, or renewing a driver’s license), as well as authenticating into government services. These core digital-first approaches have allowed Estonia to move most government services to a digital only world, including voting in national elections, filing taxes, establishing a company, banking and healthcare records and prescriptions. For more information on Estonia’s digital transformation, visit e-Estonia

In the area of Open Markets, the UK government is leading a new, innovative approach to creating an ecosystem of cloud solution providers that they call the Digital Marketplace (also called the G-Cloud). The Digital Marketplace acts as a cloud broker, where cloud service providers can offer their services, pricing and other relevant information such as capabilities, license agreements, security certifications, etc. on a common online marketplace. The barrier to entry into the marketplace is kept low to foster the greatest amount of competition and opportunity. Buyers (such as government ministries) can easily search for, compare, filter and purchase these cloud services in minutes, in a manner that is fully compliant with the UK and EU procurement regulations. By adopting this open approach, the UK government has significantly increased participation from small/medium sized businesses in government procurements, reduced costs, and reduced the time to acquire services from months, down to minutes.

Israel is similarly creating an ecosystem of open markets as The Startup Nation. Israel is proud to claim the highest number of startup companies per capita anywhere in the world. Its Startup community is second perhaps only to the Silicon Valley in the number and global reach of companies. Some Israeli startups, such as Waze, are global brands and have been acquired by major companies such as Google for billions of dollars in valuation. Others are influencing specific market segments in new and innovative ways. Here’s a list of 25 of the hottest Israeli startups according to Forbes

Both South Korea and New Zealand are leading the world in their adoption of shared services as a mechanism to provide comprehensive, cost-effective and citizen-centric government services. The Korean delegation shared their use of the term “bali bali” that roughly translates to “quick quick” or “hurry hurry” and which energizes all efforts within their government to reform and improve, adopting a national agile approach to delivering solutions.

I also had the opportunity to visit the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), a transformative group of skilled individuals who leverage modern, agile approaches to constantly improve government publishing and services. The GDS in many ways has been the blueprint that spawned many similar services and organizations within governments across the world, including the U.S. Digital Service and GSA’s very own 18F teams. The GDS has been working for the last two years to bring together all government information, Web sites and publishing platforms, into a modern, open source, award-winning platform called gov.uk. This platform is designed from the citizen-in, not government-out, keeping in mind that ultimately, all government Web sites and services must be designed to meet the citizens’ expectations, rather than requiring citizens to navigate government hierarchies and structures. Most UK government ministries now leverage gov.uk as their sole citizen engagement platform, and the platform has experienced more than two billion visits. GDS is also undertaking the transformation of government services within the UK. They are tackling the top 25 government services that account for over 90% of the transactions citizens have with government. This first round is very close to completion, with a transparent dashboard showing the progress of each project.

Another innovative initiative GDS is leading is called gov.uk Verify. This platform is a common identity/access management platform that securely verifies citizen’s identities and allows them to authenticate and to transact business with the government, instead of creating and remembering multiple passwords for various websites. Similarly, another gov.uk project currently in beta is called the Performance platform. This will transparently display key aspects of the performance of various digital services across the government showing who is using them, how they use them and how they’re performing.

There’s much of which we can be proud within the U.S. government. Many initiatives underway across the U.S. government address many of the same challenges posed at the D5 summit; there are others where we’re leading the way. For example, the FEDRAMP Cloud security framework is designed to allow Cloud service providers to align their solutions to a common set of security frameworks that allow a “secure once, use many times” approach for government to leverage cloud services. This program has already saved the government millions of dollars through reuse, and has increased the overall security posture of government information systems. Work is underway within the connect.gov initiative to create an online identifiy verification and authentication platform, allowing citizens to connect to U.S. government digital services using a common identity. Innovative, agile teams within the U.S. Digital Services, and the GSA 18F are in place, and helping agencies solve some of the most complex challenges of 21st century digital government with a user-driven, open source approach, and are already showing tremendous value, including the release of the first-ever Digital Services Playbook that defines the tenets of the future of digital services within the U.S. government. We have a robust and highly connected wireless and wired internet infrastructure supported by a thriving community of private sector providers. Programs such as usa.gov, data.gov and USASpending.gov are opening government spending, data and information in unprecedented ways. Over the coming years, we’ll continue to improve and enhance U.S. digital services, learning from the D5 partner countries, and blazing new paths of our own, with a citizen first, open approach to developing a 21st century digital democracy. I’m very excited and proud to have the opportunity to play a role in this transformation.