The future looks bright! (Illustration: Rachel Hart)

The Future of Georgia’s Digital Information

Our problem-first approach to serving the people who serve The People

Kendra Skeene
Apr 17, 2018 · 9 min read

The GeorgiaGov digital platform currently hosts over 80 websites for nearly 60 state agencies and elected officials. As we at Digital Services Georgia work on the next version of our state digital platform, we keep an open dialogue with our agency partners. After all, this platform is for them and the people they serve, so we need to know we’re all on the same page.

Last fall, I spoke with state agency employees about the future of our platform at our GOVTalks conference. I explained that while our team has and will continue to focus a lot of energy on researching, planning, and building a technology solution to meet our ever growing and changing needs,

our end goal is less about which technology we use, and more about empowering our state partners.

Agencies need to get their critical information to the people who need it — quickly and accurately. That will start with digital technology, but it ends with all the content owners across state agencies and elected officials’ offices.

So before planning for future facing technology, we started by analyzing what we have. In my talk, I shared the following:

  • The challenges we see our agency partners facing
  • How these challenges inform our goals, short- and long-term
  • How agencies can prepare now for the future

While the talk was focused on what we see in the state government sector, the challenges we’ve found our agency partners facing aren’t limited to government service. The sentiments and challenges are widespread across both public and private sector industries, and I suspect the takeaways are applicable across industries.

3 Challenges State Agencies Face

To start, we looked at 3 main challenges that I see agencies facing:

  1. Agencies face channel fatigue; they feel overwhelmed by the many ways their audiences seek their services.
  2. Agency information lives in disconnected silos.
  3. Agency goals often don’t align with their users’ needs.

Let’s unpack each of these just a bit.

Challenge #1: Channel Fatigue

We need different lines of communication to reach everyone we need to reach.

Nikhil has addressed the overwhelm of channels we need to consider when we provide information and services. Some people may still rely on “traditional” means — office visits, phone calls, paper forms. Others are happy to get as many transactions completed online as they can. Even as we focus on maintaining a website, we know that some people have moved to other channels — mobile apps, social media, or even voice interfaces.

It’s tempting, as we hit this overwhelm, to pick a couple channels we feel comfortable with and focus there. It’s also tempting, as we think of ways to cut costs, to decide that we should drive all traffic to our online channels.

The challenge is that not all our users have access to all our channels.

Our most recent numbers tell us:

While you may think this is because those families all rely on their smartphones to connect, that’s often not the case in these underprivileged populations. Many still aren’t connected at all, whether because of affordance or preference.

Though we can drive some people to digital channels, we are still going to need phone lines, and we’re still going to need paper. We can’t phase them out, and we need to consider how to reach underserved groups who don’t have either the luxury of or interest in a mobile data plan or in-home internet.

So our first challenge to providing government information and services is the sheer number of channels we need to serve. We can’t just focus on providing services for the one channel we’re most comfortable with. We need to think about how to provide for all of them.

Challenge #2: Information Lives in Silos

Disconnected sources of truth erode trust.

As we zoom out on those channels, we know that we store the answers and information for each one separately, per agency, and often, per division. They have different systems, different sources for those answers — what we might refer to as sources of truth. So it’s easy for an agency to have correct policies or expectations in one place, but not update another. This means there’s a greater likelihood that people will come across incorrect, outdated information on any one channel.

Our mess of information means it can be hard for people to get the information they need. They may get a different answer from a call center than online — and that’s where trust begins to erode.

It’s a complex challenge with no easy answer … but one that our team keeps at top of mind as we think about how to architect a future digital information platform.

So on one side we have an audience in need of information or services. On the other side, we have agencies providing information and services. This brings us to challenge #3.

Challenge #3: User Needs do not match Agency Goals

Users need consistency, while agencies want distinction.

Let’s take a detailed look at some findings that stood out to us from our recent user research. We aimed to better understand the needs of people seeking services or information from state agencies, and compare those to the goals of the agencies.

We found that the public looks for signs that a state site is “official.” They were more likely to trust a site that displayed the state seal and a consistent design than an agency’s self-branding (their own logo, colors, etc) and different styling.

Following on that same thread, the public doesn’t trust websites with a lot of outdated graphics or banners, but at the same time they don’t like when a site has no graphics at all. While they distrusted an older-looking website, they also distrusted sites that they felt were over polished or flashy … and particularly distrusted anything that felt like the government was marketing to them. They didn’t want to feel like the state was “selling” their services.

The study also found — and this should be no surprise — that people who aren’t in public service don’t understand the divisions in our government. We see different divisions of responsibility between agencies, and different divisions within agencies. But to most people, we’re all “the government,” and we’re all working in one big room together on everything.

To the public, we are all GeorgiaGov; the divisions between them are just confusion.

People looking for particular services start with Google, and most users expect the first site they find to have all the information they need. So if that site doesn’t provide all their answers, the user will just give up and either pick up the phone, go into an office to talk to someone, or stop seeking that service. In a nutshell, all of this confirms that we need to build in more continuity between State of Georgia sites.

But here’s the rub.

When we compare that list of user needs above to the conversations we have with agencies, we find that often they’re at odds.

And that poses a real challenge for all of us. Agencies tell us they want to stand out as their own identity, they want to break their sites up into smaller sub-sites, and they want to drive more users to be “actively engaged” with their agency by reading their press releases, attending their events, and so on. The problem is, none of those goals align with what their users need. Compare this list of needs from our user research of people in Georgia against some of the most common agency goals we hear:

  • User need: Get answers without learning government silos
    Agency goal: Stand out as a unique identity
  • User need: Get all their questions answered in one place
    Agency goal: Break information into subsites
  • User need: Get on with their lives
    Agency goal: Increase pageviews
  • User need: Stop thinking about government
    Agency goal: Increase citizen engagement

We need to be realistic about the role we play. The typical person wants to spend as little time as possible interacting with their government so they can live their busy lives. How can we help them do that? Instead of trying to increase engagement, how can we see our value in easing friction and helping Georgians as unintrusively as we can?

Ask yourself: Are your internal goals aligned with your audience’s needs? Where should they be more aligned? Where is it reasonable and beneficial to try to nudge targeted groups of users to be more aligned with your goals?

Digital Platform Goals

Now that we understand the challenges, let’s take a look at some of our team’s high-level goals to address them. How can we find the balance between addressing the public’s needs and agencies’ needs, even when the two seem to conflict? Well, to start, we look for commonalities.

Goal #1: Ease Digital Frustration and the Silo Effect for Agencies, While Reducing Friction for Users

We know that a unifying government brand across agencies can help ease confusion for end users and signify that they’re in the right place. We’re about to embark on a project with a branding and design firm to tackle this challenge. Our goal is to develop shared design elements that let the public know they’re on a trusted government site, while being flexible enough to fit different agency needs.

We also know we want to increase searchability between sites, and improve the connections between channels to help people more readily find what they’re looking for. Improving our system’s methods of organizing content and files can go a long way in both helping our agency content managers, and bridging those connections for end users. And we’re excited about some new capabilities to provide more flexible page layouts to ensure we’re giving each agency enough flexibility in the design, so that they can communicate their messages without feeling restricted by the technology.

Goal #2: Collaborate More with our Agency Partners

As we think more about unifying our branding and content, we know we’ll need to work more closely with all of the agencies involved. We want to better understand the goals of our agency partners so we can all work in the same direction.

To get us there, in the short run we’ve put together some working groups to help us refine new enterprise digital standards and policies. We also created Slack workspaces where agency content managers can share wins and frustrations, and help each other along the way.

Goal #3: Build Towards a Single Source of Truth

Ultimately, the grand vision is to build toward a single source of truth for key content from all agencies. So you can manage information in one place, and people get the right answer each time, making their experience seamless. Call centers, websites, applications, social media, chat, text … wherever the users are, that’s where we want your information to be available.

But there is a tradeoff. We can’t build that clean, connect system while also treating each web page like its own separate Word document. For content to disperse across channels, it needs to be well written, and well structured. So we’ll also embark on a content strategy project to inventory and audit content across the enterprise, identifying patterns and common types of information. This will help us better structure and architect our content systems for long term scalability.

Helping Agencies Prepare for the Future Digital Platform

To meet these goals and improve digital service delivery across the state, we need our agency partners on board. In the presentation, I gave agencies tips on how they can start using existing structured content types so existing content can be more easily migrated to a new system in the future. (You can find those tips in the original blog post and video).

We’ve since developed more reference materials with quick tips on how and when to use our structured content types. Finally, about a year ago our team developed training courses in content strategy to help the state workforce sharpen their skills for the changes to come.

In the coming months, we know a successful digital replatforming project will rely on communication with agencies and transparency on our progress. If you want to stay in the know, be sure to follow us on Medium and Twitter for news along the way.

GOVTalks Video: The Future of Your Digital Information

This post was originally published December 21, 2017 on the Digital Services Georgia website.

Digital Services Georgia is a nonpartisan division of the Georgia Technology Authority. This publication does not entertain political discussions.

Digital Services Georgia

The team that provides a web platform, training, consulting, and governance for Georgia state agencies. We put people’s needs first.

Kendra Skeene

Written by

Director of Product for Digital Services Georgia, where I’m dedicated to improving the delivery of state information and services for Georgia residents.

Digital Services Georgia

The team that provides a web platform, training, consulting, and governance for Georgia state agencies. We put people’s needs first.

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