California’s Alpha Team Takes on Real-Time .Gov Redesign

The team has just weeks to design a new, user-friendly homepage for the entire state that can be adopted by other departments and agencies. But its larger goal is to help rebuild trust in state government.

by / December 16, 2019
Government Technology

A small team in a nondescript office in the heart of California’s capital is looking to shake up how government interfaces with residents through a sweeping redesign of the state’s homepage, CA.gov.

The group of 10, a mix of state employees and civic tech experts, has a very small window of time — 12 to 14 weeks to be exact — to fully develop what is being called “Alpha,” a new version of CA.gov featuring better functionality and improved access to services. The site is already live, being built piece by piece with real-time feedback from real-world users.

The California team is expanding on lessons learned during the rollout of Gov.UK and the work of the United Kingdom Digital Service (UKDS), considered a gold standard for user-centered gov tech. Angelica B. Quirarte, the digital engagement lead at the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps), said the UKDS provided the fledgling team insight into how to prioritize items to meet the delivery time window.

“At the end of the 12 weeks, I’d like to have a functional alpha website that has gone through the eyes of actual users that will allow us to tell the stories of why content design and user research matter when it comes to developing websites or just digital services in general,” Quirarte told Government Technology. “We need to move away from websites and into realizing that this is a new era in how government needs to function.”

THE SCOPE OF ALPHA

Michael Wilkening, special adviser on Innovation and Digital Services in the Office of the Governor, said a CA.gov redesign has seen various stages of development in recent years, but with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s push to modernize state IT, it was the perfect time to try a more radical approach.

“I’m doing this very much as a much broader effort than just CA.gov,” Wilkening said. “This is really helping with the foundation of how [the Office of Digital Innovation [ODI] will operate and how we should be thinking about doing other things.”

The relatively new agency is described as a start-up inside state government focused on improving service delivery for Californians. The department, under GovOps, is overtly dedicated to human-centered design and technology, so much so that the Alpha Team has hired the state’s first user researcher to the team.

Alpha is meant to be iterative, an evolving website that changes as developers hear critiques or praise from residents. The team’s user researcher will oversee a newly released six-question online survey that asks items such as: “Think back to the last time you needed to find information or actually get something done with a state government service. What was it? Did you trust the information you found?”

Quirarte said an assessment of what Californians want when they visit government websites is vital to the success of Alpha.

“I think it also introduces a different way of civic engagement. How does the public now know what government does to deliver their work?” Quirarte said. “The fact that you can have a member of the public add a task or ask us a question and literally see us work as we’re moving through the process, it’s just not something that’s very common in government. It’s not a relationship that they public is probably used to. I’m really excited to see many more comments come through.”

The group did its homework in the ramp-up to the start date and reached out to the designers of Gov.UK to gauge how big of a challenge it was undertaking. Quirarte said a helpful takeaway was the advice to launch an easy and accessible website straightaway and build from there.

“One of the first ones I think we’ve talked about is don’t overthink the design from the get-go,” she said. “We don’t need to spend 30 days talking about what color we’re going to be using or design principles, as well. There’s a lot of stuff out there that we can steal and borrow from that’s best practices. Let’s just use what’s out there and really focus on what we know we are lacking in, which is user research and content design.”

Alpha, as of now, has a very simple look featuring a black-and-white color scheme and Public Sans font, which was developed by the United States Web Design System to build simple, mobile-friendly websites.

NONTRADITIONAL TOOLS IN GOVERNMENT

The Alpha Team has embraced civic tech methodologies and productivity tools, such as Slack, G-Suite and GitHub. Luke Fretwell, project designer and CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based ProudCity, said the nontraditional approach to providing a government service increases transparency and productivity.

Fretwell said that by funneling the team’s workflow through GitHub, leaders are apprised of the staff’s workload, problems and task completion. Coming from an open-source background, he said he was initially apprehensive at how well open source and open culture would be viewed by his state contemporaries on the project.

“We’ve had real conversations and none of them have been knockdown, drag-out, it’s just really having an authentic conversation and talking it through,” Fretwell said. “From my perspective, the folks that are on the state side that have been working in government for a long time are maybe used to a less-than-open culture. It’s been pretty amazing to see this team kind of disarm and be less inhibited about the way that they work.”

The open-source nature of the alpha lets the team bolster its ranks with civic tech professionals and enthusiasts around the world who can weigh in on efficiencies, bug fixes and more to improve each iteration of project throughout the condensed timeframe. Everything the group learns is documented through various mediums, which will allow others in the gov tech space to easily replicate the team’s work.

THE FUTURE OF THE ALPHA TEAM

When the 12 to 14 weeks end, it doesn’t mean the Alpha Team will be packing up their office and moving out. The plan, as of now, Quirarte said, is for the group to continue its work on alpha.CA.gov and possess an online logbook of everything learned during the endeavor.

“Hopefully it will get to a point where we can continue to work with departments, agencies and Californians really making content design and user research more of a priority in this type of work,” she said. “We’ve started and delivered the first page, so we’ll see what it looks like next week, but we just want to keep doing more of this because we have a permission right now.”

The new CA.gov has been designed using Bootstrap, a front-end website component library that is already in use by agencies and departments across the state. With an alpha.ca.gov for these institutions to draw from, a website standardization can be implemented across the state.

“This is part of that overall reconceptualization and reinvigorating the relationship between Californians and their government and rebasing it,” Wilkening said. “CA.gov should really be an embodiment of what that relationship looks like and it should be the place where people come to find out about California government, where they come to find out about services, how they access those services, ultimately it should be the place where they’re coming to apply for those sorts of benefits.”

Quirarte said even if the alpha site doesn’t function as initially imagined, the team’s work to rebuild trust between Californians and their government through an open and transparent design process will prove to be success enough. The group will have identified what Californians care about and how they want to interact with their government, she said.

“Alpha is for learning and even if I fail, if we fail, that’s still a lesson learned and someone else can pick it up and take it forward,” Quirarte said. “... We’re in it to do the work, we’re in it to make a difference and that’s what we’ve committed to do and we’ll do our best.”

The team plans to post a weekly blog, daily Twitter updates and to showcase its real-time work on GitHub to gather additional viewpoints from the public. Progress on the Alpha is being closely watched by government officials in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Colorado who are looking to give a user-focused makeover to their websites, as well.

Patrick Groves Staff Writer

Patrick Groves is a staff writer for Government Technology. Previously, he worked for five years at newspapers in Washington state, Idaho, Florida and Northern California. He has a Bachelor’s degree in communication from Washington State University and lives in Northern California.

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