10 digital services agencies worth following

It was sometime in the last decade — perhaps solidified by the abysmal launch of HealthCare.gov and its subsequent resuscitation — that agencies at all levels of government began to wake up to the fact that their users really don’t like to be inconvenienced. People want to get the information or services they’re looking for fast and then move on with their lives even faster.

As commonsensical as the truisms exchanged in digital-government circles tend to be — one should put the user at the center of design, for instance — they’ve proven either exceptionally difficult for governments to implement or more slowly transmittable than anticipated. This is evidenced by the fact that many government websites remain inaccessible by mobile devices, unsecured, difficult to navigate and often do not even contain the information and services one seeks.

But help is on the way. Small, nimble teams of developers and government wonks with a passion to better serve their constituents are bucking the trend of bureaucratic indifference and inefficiency. They’re allergic to bad design, they know how to automate this task or that process, and they might even get snarky about it on Twitter — all for your convenience and delight. Overall, these are people who are dedicating their work to making government work better. Our reporters at StateScoop and EdScoop humbly present this incomplete list of organizations that we think are going to do interesting things in the coming months and years. Keep an eye on them.

This is part of StateScoop and EdScoop’s special report on user experience. Read the rest of the report.

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1. Digital Services Georgia

1. Digital Services Georgia

Location: Atlanta, Georgia

Website: https://digitalservices.georgia.gov/

As one of the oldest digital services agencies in state and local government, Digital Services Georgia has virtually written the playbook that many others follow today. Nikhil Deshpande, Georgia’s chief digital officer and the agency’s director, says leaders often lose sight of how important digital services are as matters of security, workforce and modernization take priority. His philosophy is simple, centering around the notion that users “don’t don’t really care or want to spend time understanding the complexity of the different departments, divisions or organizational structures.” They just want what they want — quickly. Most recently, this has manifested in Georgia through consolidation of 90 agency websites onto a common platform as the state pilots a new, streamlined, peach-accented website that puts the user front and center. Deshpande says it’s all about eliminating “friction” in the user experience and helping employees do their jobs more efficiently.

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2. Alpha.ca.gov

2. Alpha.ca.gov

Location: Sacramento, California

Website: https://alpha.ca.gov/

Creating websites that are regularly updated with new features based on user input is a growing trend in government — Georgia is piloting the idea and handful of major cities are dabbling, too. But California’s redesign of its primary digital presence is not “business as usual,” according to project lead Angie Quirarte, assistant secretary for digital engagement at the California Government Operations Agency. Announced in October as a five-month project in which officials would ramp up citizen engagement, the website presents a spartan facade that today hosts just a handful of services, including a guide to hire a home-improvement contractor and tools to find food banks or look up the minimum wage in various cities. If the early clutter-free design, snappy interface and recent hires at GOA mean anything, California is on a trajectory to set a new standard for user design and make good on its promise of “making it easier to find and use government services and information.”

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3. San Francisco Digital Services

3. San Francisco Digital Services

Location: San Francisco, California

Website: https://digitalservices.sfgov.org/

With the motto “we use technology to make it easier for people to get things done,” San Francisco’s digital services arm embodies the idea that simple and easy-to-use technology makes it easier for residents to access essential services. Building on a digital strategy penned in 2016, the division has crafted websites that make it easier for people to find housing, small business owners to find information and immigrants to find legal aid. It’s also currently rebuilding the city’s website from the ground up, acting on San Francisco Chief Digital Services Officer Carrie Bishop’s belief that users struggle when bouncing between various website styles and layouts. Bishop is now ramping up to make her division one of the nation’s largest digital services, aiming to build a team of more than 40 employees. “We have huge plans,” Bishop wrote in a tweet last month.

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4. Penn State University

4. Penn State University

Location: Centre County, Pennsylvania

Website: https://www.psu.edu/

While universities have a narrower constituency than entire cities or states, the technological demands placed on them are similar. They must stay engaged with changing trends, warn their users of the latest online scams and attempt to stay relevant while bobbing along a never-ending river of memes and pet pictures. Penn State’s launch last month of “Penn State Go,” an all-in-one app that lets students access university email, campus maps, grades, class schedules, tuition bills, academic advising and other services through a single sign-on, ought to be the envy of not only other higher education institutions, but state and local governments, too, for realizing a feat of IT consolidation and identity and access management many top government IT officials struggle to achieve. Based on survey data from more than 3,000 students, Penn State’s new app is driven by users from across its more than 20 campuses, and with a student enrollment of nearly 100,000 students, Penn State is large enough to be its own city.

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5. New Jersey’s official Twitter account

5. New Jersey’s official Twitter account

Location: Somewhere in New Jersey

Website: https://twitter.com/NJGov/

While not a digital services agency, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s office gets a nod here for its plainspoken and impressively popular Twitter account, the operators of which — Pearl Gabel and Megan Coyne — have discovered that the kudos they earn from a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the state’s cultural mannerisms are worth the occasional confusion that arises when someone can’t figure out why an official government social media account is talking about our mothers. While it’s become standard practice for government agencies to maintain at least some degree of presence on major platforms like Twitter, the New Jersey account’s unapologetic tone and penchant for taunting neighboring states demonstrates it’s one of the few government offices that understands that to truly engage users online requires striking upon the proper mixture of authenticity and irreverence. That paves the way for legitimate, useful notices to reach a receptive audience.

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6. Oakland Digital Services

6. Oakland Digital Services

Location: Oakland, California

Website: https://www.oaklandca.gov/topics/oakland-digital-services/

Drawing lessons from the work of Code for America and Gov.uk, Oakland Digital Services is led by Mai-Ling Garcia, the city’s digital engagement officer. Since 2014, Garcia has been leading a holistic approach to digital services in the San Francisco Bay Area city, calling inspiration from former Apple user experience architect Don Norman, noting that user experience designers don’t only change how digital services are built, but who benefits from their creation. The agency’s most recent work comes in the form of a more accessible and iterative redesign of the city’s website and — with some help from community organizations — the creation of a new catalog of the city’s more than 400 services. The agency is also helping the city, for the first time, publish its redistricting data, to, Garcia said, “inform the community conversation better.”

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