Summit Sneak Peek: From Civic Tech to State Leadership with Nikhil Deshpande

Code for America Summit is just around the corner, and in the coming weeks we’ll be highlighting some of the people behind this year’s inspiring Summit content. These are leaders in tech and government who not only share our vision for a radically improved future for government services, but show what works and imagine what’s possible.

Want to hear more? It’s not too late to get your tickets.

Nikhil Deshpande is the Chief Digital Officer for the State of Georgia. He is also serving on this year’s Summit content committee as the chair of the Operations + Management track. Ahead of Summit, we asked Nikhil a few questions about his work at the intersection of government and technology and his journey to state leadership.

Tell us a bit about your background and current role, and how you came to be a part of this community.

I have worked in civic tech for the last 15 years. I am a UX/ Interaction designer by trade and have previously worked in advertising, training, and education before working with the state of Georgia. As the CDO for the state and director of digital services, I’m fortunate to lead teams of mission-driven individuals who work tirelessly to make state information and services easier to access and understand for all Georgians. As an active member of the civic tech community, I always kept up with what was happening on the national scene. I learned about USDS and Code for America right after their inception. I have been seeking inspiration from the work of these great teams ever since. I had the chance to attend my first Code for America Summit a few years ago, and it felt like my Twitter feed had come to life. It was exciting to hear and meet in person all the awesome service designers I had been following for years. At that very moment, it was obvious to me that these are my people, my community.

What does “designing better government” look like to you?

Better government is a giant tent, so I’ll address the pillars I’m dealing with! I believe we can make a huge difference in designing better government services. To me, “Designing better government” translates to designing a better experience for people.

Governments are struggling with an array of paradoxes at different levels. Stuck in between dwindling public trust and heightened expectations, governments all across the globe are scrambling to adapt to a rapidly changing world of technological innovation, an aging workforce, and processes that conflicts with the modern ways of operating.

Design with the people, not for them: The keystone element in designing a better government is the idea of making government about the people and not the organizations and the bureaucracy. We need to redesign services with the people we design for. This requires organizations to work with real people, focus on resident needs, and understand their end-to-end journey to build services in an agile and iterative manner.

Data-driven decision making: Governments should foster an evidence-based decision making culture. For the longest time, the public sector has trailed the private sector in measuring goals, performance, and outcomes. Several organizations still observe HiPPO culture. (The highest-paid person’s opinion matters the most). Governments that are results-oriented rely on hard numbers and data for decision making.

Tell us about your role on the Summit content committee and the process for planning the Operations + Management content track.

I am very honored to be part of the content committee and track chair for Operations + Management. This track spans a wide spectrum of topics, so it was a challenge to plan the lineup. Every submission was well thought out and held potential. We followed the open-sort process of information structuring, which produced the following sub-themes: Product Management, Innovation, Culture Change, Government/Private Partnerships, Procurement, Work Culture, and Work-Life Balance.

Having served on other conferences’ content committees, what struck me about this one was the number of submissions addressing the “human” theme. It reveals our society’s mental health challenges, and it’s heartening that people see the Summit as a safe space to tackle these issues. I want to give a shoutout to my track team: Carrie Bishop, Robin Carnahan, Katie Malague, and Emma Gawen. Without them, it would have been impossible to pick the selected sessions. It is never easy to decide to move past a session submission because we know the time and effort it takes to intellectualize thoughts and pitch them in the form of a submission. I am equally excited to see the sessions from other tracks and look forward to attending the ones I have earmarked.

Are there any breakout sessions and/or workshops you’re especially excited about What are you excited about at Summit more generally?

I sometimes get overly ambitious at conferences. I usually earmark a ton of talks, then end up editing the list to ones that hit my main focus and goals at the time. There are several sessions on the Summit schedule I’m excited about. For some, it’s a known/admired presenter. Others relate to one of my current projects. I’m particularly looking forward to sessions about product management, web accessibility, human-centered design, work-life balance, and team management.

I’m selfishly excited about a session in my track: Building State Digital Teams. The concept of digital teams is still new, and as more states adopt the digital service model, I hope to see a groundswell of civic tech service designers doing what USDS is doing at the federal level. Lately, conferencing happens as much outside of the sessions as in them. I’m excited to see all the wonderful people I saw at the last Summit, and I’m hoping to meet new civic tech champions. If you want to reach out, I’m @nikofthehill.

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