Innovation Office’s First Annual Report: A Recap and a Look Ahead

“We’re really excited about the work we’re doing and have on deck, some of which has been called out in the governor’s budget, such as simplifying payments for Californians accessing state services and digitizing processes to make programs more equitable for Californians and efficient for state staff,” said Udaya Patnaik, director of the Office of Digital Innovation.

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The Office of Digital Innovation (ODI), one of the newest and most forward-looking entities in state government, has issued its first annual report.

ODI was created as an element of the California Government Operations Agency by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 as a way of streamlining the iterative development of technology and innovating new practices and protocols in state IT. It was championed by Michael Wilkening, a longtime top executive in state government who retired in December as Newsom’s special adviser for innovation and digital services. In an exit interview with Techwire, Wilkening cited the standup of ODI as being among his proudest accomplishments.
Headshot of Udaya Patnaik.
Udaya Patnaik, director of the Office of Innovation.
Kinsley Wong

ODI’s director, Udaya Patnaik, told Techwire through an ODI spokesperson that he’s pleased with the office’s progress to date.

“We’re proud of the work ODI did in our first year to serve Californians,” Patnaik said. “Our team built the first version of covid19.ca.gov in four days, but its ongoing impact has been a testament to both incredible cross-department collaboration and constant feedback from Californians. Working with our other state partners, we were able to help keep Californians continually informed about public health, what’s open and how to stay safe. Sites like covid19.ca.gov are another great demonstration of how the state can harness the power of digital tools to create simple, compelling, helpful experiences.”

The annual report, addressed to state Sen. Nancy Skinner, chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, opens with highlights of ODI’s year:
  • Designed, created and launched acclaimed websites and digital services, including covid19.ca.gov.
  • Worked closely with groups like the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency to diagnose problems, improve processes and upgrade technology.
  • Developed alpha.ca.gov digital services and modules for common tasks Californians need to do, like find food banks and see lane closures.
  • Brought in experienced leaders from within and outside state government to steward and build the organization.

“While ODI’s accomplishments over the last year have been significant, there is clearly much work to do to help Californians,” the report’s executive summary notes. “ODI is honored and ready to do this work.”

In his comments to Techwire, Patnaik said: “We’re really excited about the work we’re doing and have on deck, some of which has been called out in the governor’s budget, such as simplifying payments for Californians accessing state services and digitizing processes to make programs more equitable for Californians and efficient for state staff.”

He added that ODI is “working closely with different departments on discovery for projects, helping identify what Californians need using qualitative research and data analytics. Together, we’re prototyping, getting feedback and iterating digital solutions, from new APIs to webpages. We are designing easy-to-use web interfaces that use clean, fast-loading code and reusable elements. We are making data visualizations interactive and usable by people with different abilities using assistive technology. And we’re being intentional about how we create pages so they render without using a ton of bandwidth even on low-end devices.”

Part of ODI’s work in the past year-plus was standing up its Alpha project, staffed by a small, rotating crew chosen from across state government and the private sector, and from among numerous disciplines, working together in a workshop environment to brainstorm and iterate and document their progress. The emphasis is on user experience and accessibility.

“Teams of ODI staff and partners put themselves in the shoes of Californians and try to use state services themselves, building empathy for people’s frustrations,” the report says. “As solutions are designed, ODI tests instructions, applications and services with real people who provide feedback on what works and what must be improved. ODI’s approach of research, content design, prototyping and testing reduces risk, speeds delivery and solves problems more effectively.”

The report cites examples of how ODI team members went into the field to tap more deeply into the user experience aspect of development:
  • ODI traveled to a fire-impacted town in Northern California to meet with and interview local elected officials and business owners about the issues they face when trying to rebuild.
  • ODI tested its “Find a birth certificate” prototype, and found that three out of every five people at a county government office had translators because Spanish is their primary language.
  • ODI collaborated with the Department of Rehabilitation to share best practices for accessibility in digital design.

Much of the work done to date by ODI will be incorporated into an upcoming redesign of ca.gov, the state’s primary public-facing portal for government services. (More information on the ca.gov redesign will be shared by state Chief Information Officer Amy Tong at an upcoming vendors’ forum, which Techwire will cover.)

ODI also has a somewhat unusual staffing model, relying on “a variety of hiring vehicles including CEAs (Career Executive Assignments) and other civil service staff, select staff from partner departments brought in by inter-agency agreements, exempt appointments made by the governor, special consultants, and contractors,” the report notes. “The team is intentionally virtual, spread across the state and enabled by cloud-based technology tools. To respond to specific needs, ODI brings on and assigns team members to projects as needed. ODI has invited staff from other teams to work with ODI and learn new methods, tools and approaches.”

“Watching our team grow over the last year, I am consistently impressed by their commitment to service,” Patnaik told Techwire. “We’ve been fortunate to bring on folks who really work at the intersection of engineering, design, research, data and product, all within the goal of making government programs better for the people we serve. We look forward to expanding our partnerships with departments over the next year to find even more ways to support Californians.”
Dennis Noone is Managing Editor of Techwire. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in the Northern California foothills.