Tech & Digitalisation

Digital Transformation in Action: California

Commentary4th October 2022

Recently, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change hosted a panel discussion in San Francisco with representatives from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the City and County of San Francisco to peel back the layers of California’s digital-government transformation efforts. 

The event built on a series of papers by the Institute surveying the state of play of digital-government transformation efforts globally, from the United States to Asia to Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

Eschewing stereotypes of slow-moving public institutions, governments across the world are undergoing digital transformation in order to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and resilience of government operations and service delivery, to varying degrees and with varying outcomes. 

With governments everywhere sharing and learning from each other, the goal of the panel, and this paper, is to bring digital transformation to life through case studies highlighting key initiatives, examples and challenges for San Francisco and the DMV.

We were joined by panellists Serenity Thompson, deputy director for digital services at the DMV, and Nadine Levin, head of user research at San Francisco's digital services team. Here's some of what we learned about their respective teams' efforts.


Digital Transformation Can be More Dynamic at a State or Local Level 

Current Transformation Projects

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and San Francisco Digital Services (SFDS) are prioritising the digital transformation of core services for California's residents. The DMV is using modern digital tools to increase overall efficiency by offering dozens of services on the DMV website, including identification cards, driver’s licenses and registration renewal

Further, the DMV has placed kiosk machines across the state in over 350 locations, including in grocery stores, effectively reducing transaction times to minutes and making services available to more communities. Additional options offered by the DMV include online driver testing and paperless notices delivered through email, all designed to reduce foot traffic and wait times at the DMV while also cutting paper waste.

SFDS, on the other hand, is expanding and enhancing the delivery of services for residents of San Francisco by building digital tools that allow people to search one website (run by the city) for all their service needs. Currently, the website for the City of San Francisco hosts hundreds of other municipal websites, forcing residents to navigate various webpages when looking for specific information. SFDS is working on improving the underlying technology used by the city for its website to allow for greater information sharing across multiple platforms, improving overall functionality. These changes would enable city residents to more easily find critical information on affordable housing, permitting and basic application forms (such as Covid-19 vaccine appointments).


Digital transformation is happening at the state and local levels and California is no exception. In fact, given its size, challenges, resources and established record of tech innovation, California can serve as a strong unit of experimentation for governments looking to share and learn lessons on transformation efforts for residents.


Digital Transformation Spotlight

The DMV is currently experimenting with a new initiative known as Mobile Driver’s License (mDL). This would replace, or supplement, a physical card with an electronic copy accessed and presented via smartphone. 

The potential benefits of an mDL are numerous with the DMV citing greater control of personal data as one such example but policy experts also warn of serious privacy risks without adequate protections. By providing various options for residents when verifying IDor DLs, the DMV is hoping to offer more personal choice when using digital services that are required by governments.


It's Possible to Build in Equity and Inclusion to Digital Transformation Efforts

Equity and Justice

California is a diverse state and optimising digital services for residents of various races, socioeconomic backgrounds and citizenship status has been a major goal for both the DMV and SFDS. 

The DMV has instituted numerous policies for immigrant communities including developing regulations that allow households to conduct online transactions through family members, incorporate translation services for 12 different languages and comply with state law on driver’s licenses for undocumented persons (Assembly Bill 60)

For SFDS, helping to develop the "Race and Ethnicity Data Standard" was important because it provided the city with guidance on data-collection strategies for sensitive topics, such as race, to ensure more equitable policy outcomes. The new data standard will help the city comply with racial equity legislation by validating research methods to measure race and ethnicity.

Accessibility and Digital Literacy

SFDS has been working on offering multiple modalities of engagement (such as phone and paper transactions) for users that still lack consistent or reliable access to the internet (approximately 100,000 residents). To help address this problem, SFDS partnered with another public office to develop a city-wide accessibility and inclusive standard. Even with increased language options and access, overcoming digital literacy challenges is key to helping local residents navigate city resources and securing critical services. 

The DMV also offers multiple access points for services to meet the needs of all Californians with virtual offices (online) and in-person interpretation services for residents lacking internet access. Additionally, the DMV has been updating older tools to optimise for greater accessibility – the driver’s handbook, for example, has been shortened and made available at a 6th-grade reading level.


Regional digital transformation efforts provide governments with opportunities to design bespoke policies that correspond to local populations. For example, California faces unique challenges in providing services for immigrant communities and by tailoring solutions for regional populations, the state can improve the effectiveness of policy response. 


The Importance of Trust in the Digital Transformation of Government Services

Digital Privacy and Data Security

The DMV processes 80 million transactions per year and collects personal information (for instance, name, address and social security number) of Californian residents for purposes of official business. With the agency collecting sensitive information on so many people, privacy and data security are of critical importance. Considering these challenges, the DMV has taken steps to protect the privacy of personal information with innovations such as MyDMV, a mandatory account to enhance data security and reduce duplicate work. 

However, the agency also recognises that there are inherent obstacles to modernising services while also enhancing privacy protections. This trade-off can sometimes slow the digital transformation process. For instance, the DMV offers organ donation registration when applying and renewing IDs. Since the DMV is an access point for another service and cannot, by law, collect and store certain information pertaining to organ donation, residents must complete new forms each time when renewing IDs. This can be time consuming but also represents a necessary step for privacy protection.

Unlike the DMV, SFDS does not collect the personal information of residents because they have expressed serious concerns about providing sensitive data to city offices. Instead, SFDS advises the city on how to limit data collection to information that is needed to achieve equity goals for specific policies. However, there are instances when collecting more information about residents is necessary to improve service-delivery (such as understanding what racial groups use, or fail to use, services) and the city must make certain trade-offs to better serve specific populations. With the goal of improving trust among residents and ensuring better policy outcomes, SFDS has done research to help the city explain why they need to collect personal information and what they will do with it.


While transformation efforts are on the rise locally, with the potential for tremendous benefits, governments still face numerous challenges including data privacy and security, digital literacy and accessibility, and bridging the gap of trust between residents and institutions.

Image Credit: Getty

Figure 1

Article Tags

No Tags Found


Practical SolutionsRadical Ideas

Practical SolutionsRadical Ideas

Practical SolutionsRadical Ideas

Practical SolutionsRadical Ideas

Practical SolutionsRadical Ideas

Practical SolutionsRadical Ideas

Practical SolutionsRadical Ideas

Practical SolutionsRadical Ideas