Published on May 18, 2021
Earlier this spring, millions rushed to schedule COVID vaccinations through a bevy of online portals managed by state and local governments. Instead of appointment slots, however, many were met with an unending string of error messages and broken websites that laid bare the obvious: The government was struggling with tech. In Massachusetts, the failure of the state’s online vaccine scheduling portal brought back memories of the failed 2013 launch of healthcare.gov, the federal government’s health insurance marketplace website. For David Eaves, a civic technology entrepreneur, lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and director of the Project on Digital Government at the Ash Center, the botched vaccination platform was not surprising. “A big part of the challenge is we’re now in the era of digital government, where every service you launch will have a digital component to it,” he says. “The capabilities to build and launch those types of services digitally are not straightforward for organizations that have been around for a period of time — but they are now core to what the government does.”
Government services are inherently digital, argues Eaves, but governments still lack the personnel and technological capacity to deliver services to a public that expects most simple tasks, such as scheduling a vaccine appointment, to be done effortlessly online. “Technology in government first started as a military application, and then it slowly became a back-end office solution,” he explains. “Government only started communicating with the public online in the 2000s, and the idea that you could perform a transaction online, such as paying a parking ticket or filling out the census, is only a 2010s phenomenon.”
Eaves points out that this digital pivot has beguiled the private sector, too, with no small number of legacy companies failing to anticipate the impact that digital technology would have on their business model. He notes, however, that the private sector fosters a competitive environment that compels businesses to change. “In the public sector, that doesn’t exist. Rather, it’s more of a generational turnover in the composition of the public sector workplace as well as demands of public and elected officials; it just takes longer for [the need to change] to be felt.”
A public policy school like HKS offers the opportunity to train the next generation of public leaders with new skills, competencies, and ways of delivering services enabled by technology. But Eaves notes that across public policy schools and public administration schools, only 16% of MPA programs and 12.5% of MPP programs have a core class that focuses on technology-related issues. As a result, universities and civil service institutions are churning out graduates who are expected to set the pace of change in governments around the world despite lacking exposure to core technology competencies.
So, Eaves reached out to faculty members at other institutions for a series of informal discussions about how they could collectively strengthen technology training for these emerging public sector leaders. “We developed this amazing team of faculty from around the world, who have all been contributing the ways they're thinking about this problem and teaching [about technology],” he says. Together, Eaves and his colleagues then began assembling a suite of curricular materials, including a shared syllabus that is open to anyone teaching government technology skills and competencies.
These conversations eventually led to the creation of Teaching Public Service in the Digital Age, a consortium of faculty from around the world working to create free teaching materials to build skills for government in the digital age. Initially self-funded, Eaves and Tom Steinberg, a British civic technologist who serves as a senior advisor to the project took their work to the Public Interest Technology University Network Fund, which provided support to help build out the suite of curricular materials.
Eaves used DPI 662, a course he teaches on digital government at HKS, as a sounding board for many of the initiative’s concepts. Ines Mergel, a professor of digital governance at the University of Konstanz in Germany, likewise used her courses to pilot several concepts the network developed in their shared syllabus. Eaves and his colleagues then set out to document how they taught that material in a classroom setting, enabling new faculty members to use the syllabus as a guide to build their own courses.
The core members of the project designed the syllabus to be as flexible as possible, with some instructors borrowing only a few classes from the syllabus and others basing entire courses on the team’s materials. “My class is a 13-week course, and I’ve documented enough sessions that you could effectively run a full-semester course from the syllabus, cherry-pick pieces and run it like a half-term course, or slot them into your existing program,” says Eaves.
The project’s impact has grown far beyond what Eaves had thought possible when he, Steinberg, and the initial consortium members first set out to develop a set of shared teaching materials. “We've had deans from other public policy schools reach out and ask us to review the core curriculums of their courses to see where we think there are gaps in the practices and competencies of digital-era public leaders,” says Eaves. Faculty interest has spanned the globe, with instructors from universities across Europe, Asia, and the Americas adopting portions of the curriculum for their courses. Eaves has been particularly heartened by civil service colleges’ interest in the project because such schools train whole cadres of public sector leaders. “It’s just a massive impact.”
Since the project began, Eaves has interviewed close to 100 faculty members and 50 deans to gauge interest in the consortium’s work as well as to get feedback on the teaching materials that the team has helped develop. This summer, Eaves will bring together faculty to discuss this feedback and incorporate it into their work. “One of the core competencies we teach is understanding the importance of iteration. Technology is by no means static, which means we have to continually revise and adapt our work to the broader world around us.”
Written by Dan Harsha, Associate Director of Communications and Public Affairs