As great as email is, it’s not always the best way to communicate. Pennsylvania IT officials decided that sending emails willy-nilly engendered a culture of confusion and opaque operations. As a solution, the state developed IT Central, a Microsoft SharePoint-based internal portal that now serves as a one-stop shop for information pertaining to IT operations for more than 2,000 workers across Pennsylvania’s 40-plus state agencies.

Officials say the portal improves how they operate and has shrunk the organization from a logical standpoint. State CIO Tony Encinias told Government Technology that communications were disorganized and uncoordinated before the launch of IT Central, and that it was a rocky road to complete the project, which was first conceived in 2011.

“Communication was spotty at best when it came to broadcasting things that were of importance to the IT community,” Encinias said. The process of building the portal and then rebuilding it after the first version garnered little attention was labor-intensive, he said, but the final result was worth it.

“It was a very painful process meeting with all these folks to make sure we understand their basic needs for the site, but at the end of the day it was probably the best thing we did because now the site is actually tailored to the user,” Encinias said. “It takes a long time to interview 100-plus people, to find consistency amongst those 100 people and really to come up with one way to approach developing this site to satisfy everybody.”

The cost to redesign, develop and migrate the website, funded through the CIO’s budget, was about $145,000, which was paid to an outside SharePoint developer. Pennsylvania used its existing enterprise SharePoint license, so there were no additional licensing costs.

Growing Interest

The redesigned portal, which was launched in June, now averages about 130 users per day, up from just 20 users per day in the site’s original form. The website has now logged more than 100,000 page views.

“Obviously, sometimes IT technical teams will communicate with each other, but that’s not enough,” Encinias said. “This is a place where CIOs can go and see what’s going on from an enterprise perspective instead of relying on his or her team.”

IT Central features information that is separated into six main categories such as application development and data for chief information officers. The portal has a search bar, alert functionality, blogging and social networking aspects that allow the users to post and curate their own content.

“What I see that is really valuable to me is that agencies are talking to each other in a different way,” Encinias said. “They actually can collaborate via this tool and it’s a very informal way of doing business.”

For instance, an agency with surplus servers can alert other agencies that may be able to use the equipment. In the past, there was no platform for such a thing to happen and now lines of communication have opened up to all kinds of new opportunities like that, said Rosa Lara, chief of the Technology Investment Management Office.

Slow Start

The first iteration of IT Central launched in January 2012, but the site failed to generate excitement or capture traffic. That experience led the state to take a bottom-up approach with the redesign, which sought input from focus groups and spurred user-based mentality that continues to pervade IT Central, Lara said. “One of the ways we’re trying to encourage more participation is by democratizing the content so it’s not just viewed as an OIT website, but a site of the people, for the people, so that they can participate and get value.”

Getting input from potential users about what they wanted from the portal and how it could help them in their jobs was crucial, Lara said. The officials in the CIO's office categorized the people they spoke to, prioritized the suggestions they received, and then attempted to focus on the ideas that came up repeatedly for each category of worker.

People had a lot of suggestions on how to improve IT Central during the interviews. “People wanted much stronger search capability in terms of IT policies,” Lara said. The interviewees also wanted greater interactivity, and training opportunities around the policies, so those functions were added, too.

In addition, IT staff wanted to know what their bosses were hearing. “A lot of times we may be communicating with their CIO and their CIO is not forwarding that down to them,” Lara explained. Now when something happens in one of the state’s IT organizations, everyone can know about it because everything is posted in one central location. CIO announcements are posted to IT Central, as are the IT strategic plans shared by various agencies.

“That has increased communication tremendously because everybody knows what’s going on in the IT landscape,” she said. “If one agency builds a mobile app and another agency is interested, that’s all in IT Central. You can see all the mobile apps that agencies have developed.”

A communications specialist was hired to oversee IT Central to ensure that content stays fresh and employees have a reason to keep coming back. Officials also promise to continue growing and evolving IT Central and gearing it toward users' needs.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com