The rise of "IT start-ups" within government – known to some as digital service teams and to others as tech surge teams – has helped attract talent to address federal IT implementation challenges. 

However, multiple hurdles continue to impact digital transformation projects and the appropriate business and operations models for these teams.

Dr. Ines Mergel looks at these issues and makes recommendations accordingly in "Digital Service Teams: Challenges and Recommendations for Government," a report prepared for the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Interviewing leaders and users of centralized, enterprise and agency-level digital service teams (such as members of the U.S. Digital Service, the 18F internal tech incubator and various federal departments), Mergel examined team structure, the use of agile and human-centered design processes, human resources initiatives and incentives to attract private-sector talent, and IT acquisition processes. Her conclusion was a mix of cultural and technical roadblocks exist and stakeholders need to champion digital government innovations and engage other agencies.

Mergel found a need for teams to embrace agile development, recruit to fill the skills gap, reinforce a start-up culture in government, improve innovative IT acquisition, finds ways to secure funding, and address whether new capabilities should be bought or built. 

Digital service teams must be more strategic in addressing higher-level public administration problems to demonstrate they're not just correcting software issues, and they must think outside the box to find ways their strategies and tools can be infused in acquisition vehicles. 

There must be ways to generate revenue to show teams are sustainable, and efforts must be taken to recruit non-technical personnel to assist in bridging the gap between IT professionals and savvy public service personnel. And leaders must be enlisted to champion a willingness to operate within the law but outside existing norms. 

Mergel's suggestions to policymakers to support the efforts of these teams to implement transformative products and programs include aligning digital priorities with other mission-driven national and agency-level priorities, addressing the problems of costly legacy infrastructure with cloud and shared services, scaling up digital service team activities that demonstrate value, expanding agency authority to use resources that will coax private-sector IT talent into government, and simplify the process that restricts the adoption of third-party services with demonstrated capacity to deliver results.

The entire report, with in-depth case studies and recommendations, can be found at