How Advances in Technology Advance Governments: U.S. Government Digitalization and Challenges

Government's’ job is to provide all citizens with safe and reliable services. From that perspective, technological innovation is helping in the creation of government’s value proposition, but it's not always easy. Let's take a look into the U.S. government digitalization and the key problem areas to watch out for.


Government’s’ job is to provide all citizens with safe, reliable and cost effective information and services. From that perspective, technological innovation is helping  in creation of government’s value proposition from two angles:

  1. Efficiency.  The government should enable its citizens to do all  government transactions digitally, where, for example, citizens and businesses only have to provide their information once. Therefore, the administrative burdens are reduced, decreasing time and money required from both parties.
  2. Citizen-friendliness. Government looks at citizens as consumers/users, therefore it should strive to make all aspects of citizens’ interactions with government frictionless. Experience improvements should take place while maintaining fundamental requirements of privacy, security and integrity.

While it started with the introduction of basic transactions online, Government Digitalization has now transformed into innovative transaction services, mobile apps, social media, and interactive responsive website.

The operational model of digital government is based on three foundational elements:

  1. Security. Protecting the information, identities and payments transactions of users, while maintaining compliance with payment card industry standards.
  2. Mobility. Delivering efficient government services that work seamlessly on any device.
  3. Transactional Services. Completing end-to-end transactions through self-service platforms and providing a variety of secure payment options.

And just like we see in a technology company,  government’s digital promise relies on the operational components that include engineering, product, design and marketing. New government operations should have the following components in place:

  1. Technical infrastructure
  2. Content Management
  3. User Engagement
  4. Design
  5. Customer service
  6. Staffing
  7. Promotion
  8. Market Research

With that in mind, let’s look at what the the U.S. Government has accomplished on its path towards digitalization and the challenges it faces ahead.

The U.S. Government has been pursuing digitalization for over a decade now, starting with Clinton-Gore administration. One of the most noticeable digital projects was the launch of first ever site with data on toxic waste locations in the US in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This site put basic information about toxic waste areas in the US into the hands of citizens. As a result communities started pressuring companies in their neighbourhoods to clean up and stop contributing to toxic waste in order to improve health and increase property values in their districts. During the Bush administration the site was taken down for security reasons post 9/11.

During the Obama presidency, and with the acceleration of technology innovation, digitalization of the government took on new level of rigor and transparency. Obama personally made a big contribution to adopting modern digital trends. He was the first “social media” president: he claimed @POTUS on Twitter and did the first live on Facebook from the Oval Office. He also was the first to answer questions from citizens on Youtube, he even was the first to set a filter on snapchat. Additionally, from a platform perspective, Obama was quick to adopt governmental content properties to how people consumed media:

The Obama administration has put the infrastructure in place for next presidents to come. For example, Trump will take on Obama’s @POTUS twitter handle and all previous tweets will be archived.


This all sounds great and, no doubt, indicates good progress. However, many believe that the U.S. government must go beyond efficiency and user-friendliness. The U.S. Government needs to do a lot more to use technology to engage its citizens, because we, as society, have the right to keep an open channel of communication. That is currently not happening, and we are still in the old-mode of measuring user-friendliness and efficiency, not citizen’s engagement.

In addition, according to Viktor Mayer-Schoenbereger, Professor of Internet Governance at Oxford Internet Institute, the US government lags in the information technology quite a bit. This is largely because whenever you need to create a new piece of software, you need to involve a number of government stakeholders. The party system in the US is such that parties don’t like to work together, and they especially don’t’ like when their data is available to the other party. So many silos of information are created as a way to definite power. When you break down the silos you create value.

Another concern is that the U.S. Government does not have its act together with respect to cyber security. Looking into the future, we will need to make our biggest investment into cyber security and as well as institute new legislative changes.The missiles of tomorrow are not going come through the sky but through cyber networks.

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Student comments on How Advances in Technology Advance Governments: U.S. Government Digitalization and Challenges

  1. Very interesting post. President Obama took the White House a long way to accepting the ability of the internet, both on the campaign trail and while on the job. On your point about using technology to engage citizens, I agree we have a long way to go, but that Obama has also made significant strides in this arena. For example, he launched the ConnectALL initiative to get internet to everyone in the US ( I know it’s not quite the same, but would argue it’s a crucial foundational element to getting to a more complete measurement of citizen engagement.

    Wonder how parties will communicate and “break down the silos” under President-elect Trump. I could imagine his administration going either way on that – open discourse on Twitter or individual and direct reporting to Trump alone. It will be a very interesting four years in general but also specifically for the areas you outline in this post.

  2. Your post really does start to marry a sense of optimism while acknowledging the work still ahead. I agree that the Obama administration has gone a long way to have a more direct relationship with the populace through media channels they are on. A vast majority of the interface that a citizen has with the government on a daily basis, however, is still marred by inefficiency and bureaucracy. Granted the US is a huge country and the state system adds a further layer of administration. I wonder if there are lessons that the US can learn from their smaller friends in Europe who have had more success in digitising government services and delivery. The good news is that given how unpleasant the current experience is for the average ‘consumer’, the only way is up!

  3. Interesting post! Digitisation in the public sector is lagging significantly behind the private sector and governments globally still have a long way to go to integrate technology into daily operations.

    As you mention, transparency, information sharing and interaction with the public are some of the important areas, in which governments can utilise technology to function more effectively. Sharing information openly and accessibly can help researchers and scientists use databases previously only available to the government in their own work and thereby help drive advance in different fields. At the same time, interaction with the public (for example through social media) is extremely important. Many young people nowadays across the globe are a-political and relatively poorly informed on policies. Communicating in a digital way is essential therefore in mobilising knowledge and interest as young people increasingly consume all knowledge via technology instead of traditional newspapers, books or formal education.

    Lastly, I agree with you that the Obama administration has taken some important steps into the right direction. Obama appointed Megan Smith to be the first Chief Technology Officer of the White House. When Megan Smith came to speak at HBS a few weeks ago it was extremely interesting to see her emphasis of education and public involvement in governance. I believe we are on a good track in the US and hope that this will continue in the incoming administration. At the same time, other governments globally, for example the German Bundestag, need to also become more engaged through different forms of digital communication.

  4. Thanks for the interesting post! I’m also highly interested in the digital transformation in governments. Actually, now in Taipei, the Taipei government has already launched an i-Voting system to let citizens vote online for the department head of the government, and also used the online communication software to improve communication efficiency. In addition, some NGOs have created online platform to mark places that need to repair or can put recycled clothes in, and the government can also benefit a lot from these platforms, especially during the natural disasters like typhoon or earthquake. However, the privacy issue of governments’ digitization is always a big issue while most people still don’t feel comfortable to have a big government with all data they want. How to deal with legal and trust issues would be the next most important thing to focus on for governments.

  5. Great to see that you were also interested in how digital impacts the public sector and more specifically the US government. Interestingly enough we chose to address different angles of this revolution and I was excited to read about your focus on social media and how they enable direct, authentic and instant communication with the country, millennials specifically. Obama’s inspiring AMA initiative on Reddit is the perfect example. Nonetheless, I tend to see social media as a popular game changing tool for candidates, helping them improve their chances to win by generating incremental support and raising funds, rather than an effort to promote technology. Indeed, this article ( is one of many explaining how social media have the power to influence polls significantly, second only to televised debates. Social media are the key to engaging people by providing them with the opportunity to directly take part in the campaign by sharing their candidates’ posts and debating online. Moreover, conditioning voters to take directly part in campaigns sets a precedent, eventually leading people to the polls when time comes. This explains why candidates are increasing their spending on social networks, in my view more as a mean to improve their odds and influence the result, than as a vehicle for technological change.

  6. Great post Iryna! I think that the digitization of public services will greatly contribute to the transparency and accountability of government agencies. For instance, if public services such as transportation, water utilities or trash collection had digital systems that automatically collected data and made it public, the end-user and regulators would be able to track and scrutinize the performance of government agencies on real-time. Furthermore, the government would not be able to tamper or hide information as they would not have control over it. This would put constant pressure on the government and force them to provide a better service. Additionally, as more national and local governments made their data public, benchmarks between countries and cities could be established and best practices could be transferred between them.

  7. Interesting post, Iryna! I agree that a lot of the changes that we have seen in digitization in the US government are coming top-down from the Obama administration with programs like the US Digital Service (, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows (, but I think there are also a lot of engagement efforts taking place at the city and local levels. We see this in Boston with services like Boston 311 ( and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics ( I think a problem with these local efforts, though, is that not many local citizens know about the services or how to engage. In a new administration, I do wonder how the roles of federal and local digitization efforts will shape public policy.

  8. Great post Iryna; this is an area I’m particularly interested and passionate about. I wholeheartedly agree that the United States government, local governments specifically, must do more to engage citizens as we continue to move in the digital era. I believe if implemented correctly, technology has the ability to reinstitute citizens’ trust in government. Additionally, if citizens are engaged, the value proposition areas you mentioned above are directly impacted in a positive manner.

    Although we have much work to do, cities are embracing technology with the help of businessmen, businesswomen and public-private partnerships. For example, Bloomberg Philanthropies (Michael Bloomberg’s Foundation-HBS 66′) recently launched “What Work Cities”. What Work Cities is an initiative, which provides resources to help cities use data to improve the quality of life of for its citizens. View the website here –

    My fear as we continue to shift in the digital era concerns rural cities. Many rural cities (<100,000) are already years behind; I have interacted with local governments that still only take cash payments. How will rural cities improve their digital infrastructure and ensure their workforce is developed to deliver value to citizens?

    Again, great post!

  9. Great post Iryna! I think government’s slow digitization is a classic example of how government lags free enterprise in adopting organizational innovation, such as scientific management in the first few decades of the 1900s. Bureaucrats are less incentivized to change because they are not in the same competitive environment that businesses operate in.

  10. Irina, spasibo :)! Cyber security is indeed a huge concern at this point – as the government services and many of the other crucial aspects of our lives (such as personal finances and healthcare) get digitized, all kinds of dystopian sci-fi scenarios become more and more realistic. Especially taking into account Mark’s post on quantum computing rendering most of the current cryptographic systems useless, I wonder whether a solution can even be found using the current internet infrastructure paradigm. We might need to be thinking about creating separate physical infrastructure (with no connection to the broad consumer WWW) to host these services.

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