On June 2, North Carolina launched the newest iteration of its online portal, NC.gov. By fall, the upgrade will include new versions of 11 additional agency websites, all hosted under a common content management system.
Developed in a partnership between the state, Phase2 and Atlantic BT, North Carolina’s new Web presence represents an upgrade with all the trappings of a modern website — as well as an internal shift within the state that may change how agencies work together, and how they think about their content and the services they provide to the public.
NC.gov is built on a government-flavored multisite Drupal distribution called OpenPublic and hosted in the cloud via OpenShift, and while using modern open-source technology is great in itself, there’s a grander scheme in mind, said Billy Hylton, North Carolina digital services director.
“At the end of this, we want more than just 10 new websites with mobile optimization and a great looking feel and great looking content -- we want to shift our overall culture around supporting and managing a digital experience to be more modern and collaborative and innovative,” Hylton said. “And the process we went through supports that.”
Development of NC.gov, which began in November of 2014, was a process of marrying technology with communication, Hylton explained. User interface and experienced vendor Atlantic BT worked with state communications officials and technical personnel from state agencies to understand how content was created and what work processes looked like. Through leadership of information architecture workshops, the team designed a website that was tailored exactly to their needs, Hylton said.
“Everyone’s up out of the table putting Post-it notes on the walls, organizing the site architecture around what are perceived end-user needs based on our Persona development and research from analytics and so on,” he said, adding that Drupal development followed in the next phase.
“If I could share one piece of advice for an enterprise-level Web redesign and re-conception it is not to do it a vacuum, but to truly be collaborative and bring both those technical and communication and content roles into the process, not make it too heavy on the IT side or the communication side, because there’s so many interdependencies there,” he said. “Don’t just work with your vendor outside. All of the community is going to be impacted by all this change.”
The new NC.gov is part of the state’s larger plan for digital commons, which is to create a consistent and intuitive experience for interacting with government that always keeps the user in mind, Hylton said. The state reports that its Digital Commons project cost just under $2 million between the two vendors. It's a great investment for the state, Hylton said, because Digital Commons will dramatically improve the user experience when it comes to accessing important information and services, and internally the state will save on increased efficiencies provided by the common CMS.
North Carolina officials reported that they were attracted to Phase2 as a vendor in part because of the work they had seen completed with Georgia.gov, a state portal overarching dozens of agencies. Connecting all those agencies to common CMS makes management easier and more organized, and makes the deployment of new websites with a common look and feel a faster process, said Greg Wilson, director of public sector-practice at Phase2.
Phase2’s other government clients include California's San Mateo County, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ready.gov, Energy.gov, the U.S. House of Representatives (Drupal platform), the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and Whitehouse.gov.
A state may have 50 to 60 departments, but whatever the case may be within state government, each agency is running its own CMS platform, Wilson said. "It’s a mess, and it’s difficult to secure and manage — wouldn’t it be great if we had everybody working off the same platform so that we could better secure things, better share code, better share best practices, better share content?" he said. "And that is what we’ve done for the state of North Carolina using Open Public based on Drupal."
North Carolina’s new site hasn’t been online long enough for the state to gather reliable feedback, but Phase2’s past projects have been received exceptionally well both by the public and internally, Wilson said.
“From a citizens’ perspective, the feedback was that it was easier for them to find content. Making it easier for citizens [to obtain] content from their government is what we help our clients do. From a government perspective, savings is a big deal,” Wilson explained. “Because it’s open source, they were able to get away from licensing fees and the old model of paying for inferior products and just throwing money out the window, and as a result they calculate a large cost-saving figure over the period of several years.”
Another reason going open source is a great choice for government, Wilson said, is that it allows flexibility, especially for organizations that don’t have a huge pool of technical resources.
“They’re able to own and control their own platform rather than being beholden to a vendor,” Wilson said. “They own the code, it’s open source. They can stay with Phase2 or they can go with another vendor if they like. Also Drupal is a very active open source community, so you have this rocket fuel of innovation happening within that community that governments can avail themselves of at low or no cost depending on how they’re staffed.”
Though open source was long considered unsuitable for government projects, times have changed, especially with the development of solutions like OpenPublic that keep government’s unique security and management needs in mind. To better explain how a multisite Drupal platform can benefit government and other organizations, Phase2 published a free 11-page white paper called What Is a Drupal Platform Anyway?
Government website aficionados can see firsthand what all the hubbub is about by visiting NC.gov.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.