North Carolina Works to Revamp its Web Presence, Foster Innovation

As more governments focus on digital service adoption, the state's first chief digital officer is guiding the state toward more user-centric online design.

by / October 20, 2014

In late September, North Carolina appointed its first chief digital officer to manage how the state interacts with its citizens online. Operating through the North Carolina Innovation Center and working with officials across state agencies, Erik Ross says the state is looking to bring the user-centric design found in the private-sector to government.

“If you look at the way the current agency interactions are in the mobile and Web space, it’s very disjointed,” Ross said. “There’s no similar interaction between any state agency. If you look at each of them, you would believe you’re interacting with a different government.”

Ross and his team members -- about 20 from both technical and business backgrounds -- led technical and business-oriented workshops over the past weeks. And as part of their mission to unify the state’s presence under a single brand, they perused many websites to see what worked and what didn’t, and to understand which approach would be best in North Carolina.

“Even though it was extremely painful to sit through hours and hours of looking at websites, it was very helpful for people to get a better understanding of what each member felt were good sites and what were good features to have,” said Ross. “I don’t know that the members of those 13 agencies had ever been in a room before, talking along those lines.”

Some of the favorite websites identified by the group included Hawaii.gov and Utah.gov, both of which prominently feature search functionality. “It was very much like a Google interaction,” Ross said.

The team also looked at nongovernment websites for ideas. “The evaluation team liked ge.com, redhat.com and scad.edu as examples of nongovernment sites that are heavy in content, similar to the agency websites on which we are working,” said Ross.

Ultimately the state’s goal is to get citizens the information they need as quickly as possible online, Ross said, so that costly phone calls, emails and face-to-face interactions can be eliminated. The state contracted Raleigh-based Atlantic BT to handle the design and user interface portions of the state’s new online presence, and Phase 2 Technology – known for designing government websites like those of Georgia and of several federal agencies – to handle technical development.

Through the Digital Common project, so called because the goal is to present a common and unified front across all agencies, the state expects to launch two new websites by the second quarter of 2015, Ross said, adding that not all agencies will be migrated to the new design at once.

Innovation in the Tar Heel State

In addition to his role adapting the state’s Web presence, Ross also assist projects born out of the North Carolina Innovation Center, which was founded in 2013.
 
The iCenter, a try-before-you-buy lab built to enable the state to make better technology purchases, led to both a Microsoft Office 365 migration involving 60,000 users, now under way, and a hosted virtual desktop solution.
 
The iCenter is now piloting several projects, including a mobile field application for inspections, an immersive virtual collaboration project to reduce travel costs, customer self-service kiosks for use in locations like Division of Motor Vehicles offices, zoos, parks, aquariums and historic sites.
 
It also works with local university and high school students in its digital exploration. “The students benefit from an introduction to new technologies, and we also provide an opportunity to work alongside state employees from a mentor perspective in real-world situations,” Ross said. “The Apex High School student actually presented to the cabinet chief information officers and did a great job. This particular student is also helping build the next-generation digital user interactions for the state.”
 
One of the state’s goals with regard to the iCenter is to groom students for possible employment with the state, he said. A way they can do that, he explained, is to connect with the passions of millennials in a way that could spark their interest in public service.
 
“We have very few millennials working in the IT groups and we are looking for opportunities for engagement to get them excited about working for the state,” Ross said. “These are our future customers and employees and they are digital natives.”
Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.