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Nadworny: Serving Vermonters

For a while now I’ve been harping on the need for state agencies to improve delivery of services through technology and digital channels. Over the years we’ve sadly seen a number of terrible state technology products and only once in a while a good one.

And examples of how to accomplish this already exist. Perhaps the earliest example was when the U.K. made the Government Digital Services division a new cabinet level position. President Obama followed suit with the creation of the U.S. Digital Services Group.

Since both the U.S. and the U.K. make their process open and transparent, it’s easy to see what’s working. It turns out that the key to successful digital transformation isn’t really technology. It’s embracing a design thinking approach that begins with understanding people and addressing their needs and experience. Items such as budgets, procurement and project management are dealt with much later in the process.

I was encouraged when I saw Governor Scott propose a new Vermont Agency of Digital Services for us. Finally, I thought, our Vermont leaders understand that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel, we simply need to decide that we’re ready to roll.

But on closer review, the new department, with a cabinet level secretary, doesn’t really do that. From what’s been shared with the public so far the new department’s main focus is to consolidate IT production and contracts under one roof. The department’s goal is to figure out how much we spend on IT in Vermont in order to improve project management and contract processes.

And therein lies the rub. While some will agree that the big problem is runaway budgets, most of us see a bigger problem in technology that costs too much and still doesn’t serve our needs. A while ago, I did some user testing for Vermont Health Connect, and found that nobody complained about the project management itself. Rather, they complained because the process was all but impossible to use.

That’s because, despite the massive volume of the requirements documents, no one spent any time with normal citizens beforehand to understand what would work for them. But that’s what a design approach does: it both begins and ends with the people who’ll use what you’re designing.

Right now the Vermont Agency of Digital Services looks like it might be one huge missed opportunity. We’d better hope there’s still time to redesign it.