According to the former chief digital officer of Boston, one of the nation’s most ahead-of-the-curve cities in digital technology, the key to the future of high-tech government is cultural transformation.
As possibilities and expectations for digital services continue to grow, all state and local governments will rely on new kinds of business and tech savvy. It’s a cultural shift for which some, like the cities of Boston or Los Angeles, are well equipped. For others, it’s a landscape of challenges, decisions and pitfalls they’ve never navigated before, and that’s where Bloom comes in.
Co-founded in 2018 by Lauren Lockwood, the former chief digital officer for the city of Boston, Bloom is a specialized consulting business, a coalition of experienced digital government alumni assembled to help state and local governments improve their teams, choose the right contracts and plan for delivering digital services. Although Lockwood is based in Philadelphia, Bloom is a distributed team with advisers throughout the U.S., including Aaron Ogle, the former director of civic technology for the city of Philadelphia; Simone Brody, the executive director of the Bloomberg Philanthropies project What Works Cities; Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s former chief information officer; and Aaron Snow, former executive director of the federal digital services outfit 18F.
Lockwood said she got the idea for Bloom when she realized that the most important work she did in Boston had to do with cultural transformation. She said much of what she did in the city was not especially Boston-specific, but geared toward building up the staff’s ability to handle new challenges — how to craft RFPs, tell the difference between what two different vendors are promising, do user-centered design, or identify critical gaps in staff expertise.
Putting a team together, she found many colleagues felt the same way.
“There are many government agencies I have been a part of or worked with that have a really good sense of where they want to be, but they have trouble figuring out how to get there,” Lockwood said. “You know the analogy, ‘Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but teach a person how to fish and they’ll eat forever.’ One of the things we were seeing was, vendors were doing a great job of giving fish to government, but nobody was really focused on helping them build that capacity in-house. The real mission behind Bloom is to support government in building the confidence and capacity to build digital services designed around their constituents’ needs.”
Lockwood declined to specify how many clients Bloom has but granted most of them have been states, although her heart, she said, is still at the local level. There she has observed several common problems, recurring themes in what needs coaching — most notably, procurement, and designing solutions with the end user in mind.
Procurement’s reputation as a headache for government is well-known, and Lockwood said some of this, in the technology field at least, is because rules for procurement aren’t written in a way that dovetails well with agile methods in software development. There’s also the problem of familiarity and experience: someone trying to procure a solution to a city’s registry process might not know to ask a vendor for an API, for example.
But as more governments take a stab at these things, there are more and more use cases and institutional knowledge to draw from, hence Bloom’s role as a partner that governments can turn to when they’re trying something new.
“One of the best things that has been coming out of this civic tech movement is that … through things like 18F, and you have (the U.S. Digital Service), and different state and local digital service teams and labs and innovation centers, you’re seeing a lot of people experiment with different things, and importantly, document what they’re learning,” she said. “The place where Bloom is coming from is really, what would we have wanted to be armed with while we were in government? And what we wanted was a partner in this, and to talk to somebody who’s done this before.”
In Lockwood’s experience, at the core of all these issues is talent. Bloom’s services on this score include holding workshops and coaching clients on identifying gaps in talent and how to fill them, identifying how best to use in-house staff, retaining and attracting the right people, and choosing the right teams for specific problems.
“Technology is often part of the solution, but it’s rarely the hard part of the solution. It’s really difficult for a fantastic piece of technology to solve issues that are rooted in process and policies and culture,” she said. “Technology now needs to be constantly invested in and growing and improving over time to meet users’ needs. So it really does demand a shift in how organizations, not just government, think about managing technology and service delivery.”