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State Website Redesign Could Influence Other Departments, Processes

Alpha.CA.gov, the 12-week project to transform the state's website, won't be complete in the traditional sense after three months. But officials hope it will be a positive influence on the work of state agencies and their digital services.

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A team of 10 technology experts from California government and the private sector embarked this month on a roughly three-month sprint to transform Ca.gov, the state’s website, into a user-centered, intuitive home for digital government services.

But that’s far from the only goal of alpha.CA.gov, as the project, which began its 12-week journey Dec. 2, is known. Its website is already live, but as the simplistic, black-and-white page evolves, it’s expected to have implications for other areas of state government and their digital processes. Among the takeaways:

• The alpha project’s process inverts how government often works, according to team members including leader Angelica B. Quirarte, assistant secretary for digital engagement for the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps); and Luke Fretwell, Alpha's project designer and CEO of Oakland-based ProudCity. It began with a product framework that included a problem statement and a vision of what to do.

“A lot of times, what government does is comes up with the solution and then finds a problem," Fretwell said. "What we’re doing is defining that problem and then working towards a solution based on user research and agile methodologies and developing.” 

• Three points of inspiration may distinguish the alpha from other offerings. It’s focused on simplicity; when Techwire visited the team’s downtown Sacramento offices Dec. 11, the site’s webpage was even devoid of state logos. Where performance is concerned, members are “really thinking about it from almost, like, an app experience where it’s just super quick to get what you need,” Fretwell said. And perhaps most importantly, he said, the team is discussing the alpha as “digital services,” not a website.

“Everybody’s got a different interpretation of what a website is, but a service really emphasizes that we’re actually focused on actually delivering services,” Fretwell said.

• The alpha will go beyond transforming how state digital services are provided; it's expected to influence the new Office of Digital Innovation (ODI), created by Gov. Gavin Newsom to drive innovation and approved with the state budget in June.

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

Somewhat similarly, team communications strategist JP Petrucione said he hoped the group’s handbook — like its process, inspired and borrowed from the work of others including 18F, Gov.UK and the United Kingdom Digital Service — might be “adopted and adapted by ODI.”

“But we’re also hoping that it will be a resource and even a model for other departments, for other teams that want to work more in the open, that want to make their guidelines more accessible and more practical,” said Petrucione, director of digital media for the Governor's Office.

• Wilkening, one of alpha’s three executive sponsors with state Chief Information Officer Amy Tong and GovOps Acting Secretary Julie Lee, agreed the project won’t end in 12 weeks. Rather, officials will take what’s done, move into beta and keep iterating, eventually yielding a different Ca.gov — but even then, continuing to iterate and improve. At the end of the 12 weeks, Quirarte said, she’d like the team to have created “a functional alpha website that has gone through the eyes of actual users,” and can show why content design and user research matter to development and digital services.

“We need to move away from websites into really realizing that this is a new era in how government needs to function,” she said.

Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Techwire.