State Portal Refresh

Executive Summary

In 2006, the State Chief Information Officer initiated the Web Refresh Project, to update a web template that lacked the ability to track California’s web service and had not been modified in five years. After working collaboratively with state agencies to develop a new web template that is flexible, accessible, and usable across all state agencies, California’s eServices Office launched a new multi-platform web template in 2007. This new template prompted approximately 80 percent of all agencies to convert their own websites, saving an estimated $56 million in vendor costs for new sites.

Following the collaborative process established, the 2007 template provided a foundation for subsequent transitions – each version of the template is built upon the earlier template’s success.  New added features are made available for statewide use, helping agencies enhance their web presence in less time and at lower cost.  Better coordination among agencies has also led to vastly improved information on California’s web portal (online services, social media, etc.).

The massive change sparked by this collaboration ultimately benefits Californians who are searching for information or services from their government most, as demonstrated by the state’s 1st place finish in the 2010 Best of the Web Awards.

Business Problem

At a time when the web was exploding, California state government’s online presence was stale. From 2001 to 2006 the state did not invest in its portal or templates. Agencies were left to their own devices with an inflexible, outdated template that did not meet their business needs. A national eGovernment study ranked California’s web presence 47th in the nation. This project was designed to address several issues:

Lack of Information

  • No single entity was responsible for disseminating vital information such as standards, policies, and procedures on a statewide basis.
  • There was no readily available source of information on website usability and accessibility best practices.
  • No state agency could provide a consolidated view of the state’s online presence, including a number of online services, level of transparency, use of social media, etc.

Lack of Coordinated Assistance

  • No state agency was available to provide assistance to other agencies as they updated their websites, essentially leaving them with no other option but to hire vendors.
  • Webmasters and other IT staff did not receive the training and support required to provide ongoing support of their own agencies’ website.
  • Agency webmasters lacked any mechanism to share and enhance existing practices, forcing each agency to reinvent the wheel.

Outdated Content and Technology

  • The majority of state websites did not follow the template anymore since they were not flexible or accessible.
  • The state portal pages became static as technologies grew old and with virtually no investment in updates since 2001.

Further exacerbating the challenge of the project, the previous effort to mandate statewide templates was heavy handed, and agencies did not wish to repeat it. The web refresh effort sought to change both the substance and the negative perceptions of the process for web improvement through a collaborative effort that involved hundreds of departments.

About the Web Refresh Effort

The new state web template refresh effort was used to replace a state-provided link to mandated templates on a static website, and a website that had basic instructions, but no support or resources. The state’s webmasters also did not collaborate with one another. With this in mind, the Web Refresh Effort started with the premise that only a collaborative effort across agencies and departments could succeed in making lasting positive changes to how the state’s portal met the public’s needs.

California’s Web Refresh Effort involved creating updated templates (going from tables to cascading style sheets (CSS) and moving toward compliance with modern web standards), as well as incorporating a collaborative communication effort that was missing. In addition, ongoing web development and shared services, enticed state agencies to participate.

Open communication channels with state webmasters greatly improved the value of state websites as well. Before this effort, only 30 online services were identified.  The Web Refresh Effort discovered more than 700 services. Additionally, social media and multimedia were incorporated into the portal with the establishment of official government YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter channels. Out of this effort, the state developed a much more comprehensive understanding of what Californians were really looking for in the web space, and present it to our customers.

Improvements

The business process has been greatly improved and the effort is considered by many as one of the most successful collaborations in state government. Before this effort, the state simply provided a link to mandated templates on a static website. The website had basic instructions, but no support or resources. The original template was “one size fits all,” with one color, and a choice of two or three columns. That template remained virtually unchanged for five years. Throughout the original template’s period of existence, most agencies hired vendors, many tried to learn on their own, and others abandoned the template all together. The state web template became stagnant during a time when usage of the web was exploding in society. Further, there was no information sharing or a process to bring web development forward.

In fact, the state portal disappeared for several years off eGovernment rankings, dropping as low as a 47th place ranking in one study. During that five-year period, technologies grew old, pages became static, staff left, and the portal became virtually neglected, not to mention overlooked as an opportunity to engage Californians.

Now, following the web refresh project, the CA.gov website and templates are managed with more dynamic, collaborative, and supportive processes as exemplified by the following:

  • The eServices Office, while not an “official” state office, is responsible for disseminating information to webmasters and providing support.
  • The WebTools website was created to provide webmasters with a one-stop location to find web standards for accessibility, usability, and coding. Over the years, it has been expanded to include information on up-to-date web technologies such as mobile apps, RSS feeds, social media, blogs, widgets, and maps.
  • State agencies are no longer forced to fit into an inflexible template structure. All agencies are active participants in the template design process and most agency participants actively work to ensure that their individual agencies comply.
  • Nearly 100 percent of agencies within the executive branch adhere to the state templates.
  • The state portal is no longer static. It now contains updated information and dynamic applications.
  • Californians now receive a better picture of what the state in doing on the web, including multimedia, social media, and online services.
  • When webmasters need assistance they can turn to the eServices Office, come to a monthly meeting, subscribe to email notifications, or visit www.wugshare.ca.gov .
  • Webmasters, including webmasters from county and the federal government, come to webmasters meetings and are involved with the Web User’s Group because they find value in those meetings, not because they are forced to participate.
  • As a result, California has steadily risen through the rankings in national eGovernment studies, winning Best of the Web honors in each of the last three years (3rd place in 2008, 2nd place in 2009, and most recently, 1st place in 2010).

Economic Benefits

The Web Refresh Effort has generated numerous economic benefits, from hard dollar savings to efficiencies gained from having improved, agreed-upon processes and tools that are determined through collaborative processes.


Financial Benefits:
The California web refresh effort has saved the state millions of dollars. Examples include:

  • When the state first mandated that each department in the executive branch migrate to the new template, 80 percent were able to complete the migration on their own (saving the state an estimated $56 million in 2007 in costs that would have gone to vendors).


Process Improvements Reduce Need for Outsourcing:
The use of CSS now enables agencies to change the style of their site with ease, saving state agencies time and money.  In addition, the state’s webmasters are more skilled than ever before as tools and education are provided instead of relying on vendors. For the past three years, new containers, graphic elements, and code have been added to WebTools to allow even more customization for state agencies.

  • The state’s collaborative Web Refresh Effort developed and shared skills among state webmasters, rather than relying on outside contractors. For example, the templates and extra containers were developed in-house, without the reliance on outside vendors.
  • An updated template was released in the winter of 2010, and although there is no mandate, several agencies have already converted over using existing staff.

Shared Services Reduces State Costs: The state’s Office of Technology Services provides shared services to agencies at no cost, including:

  • Google search, analytics, blogs, and widgets state agencies avoid the cost of millions of dollars each year that would be spent buying these services on their own. Mobile template and data services are also provided. Agencies avoid millions of dollars that would be needed for individual development, procurement of vendors to assist them develop new sites, and purchase of expensive development hardware/software.

Finally, since the state does not outsource its portal as many other states do, California does not have to pass along extraordinary fees to its customers for using online services.

Technology

The underlying architecture of all state agency websites is a disparate mix of technologies and hosting platforms tailored to the needs of California state government and its web community.  This includes everything from legacy mainframe applications and databases through UNIX and Windows-based solutions.

Some agencies use content management systems; many do not. Common website standards such as accessibility, usability, and separation of content ties everything together so that it is not obvious to a customer what is “underneath the covers.” The web templates can be used across multiple browsers and platforms.

The primary CA.gov website itself is mix of technologies working together to bring a consolidated view of state government:

  • At the template level, CSS and XHTML are used and were designed to work well with multiple browsers and web platforms. The use of proxy detection technology presents the portal in a way that is best of each user – Flash for those using a player, Flash-free for those who are not, and a mobile version for those using a smart phone.
  • Interactive features such as clickable and zoomable maps, data maps, and smart search, were created using Flash, Google Custom Search, Google Maps, and SQL.
  • The revamped state agency directory, which is the most popular service of the main CA.gov site, is hosted in the cloud (Amazon) and uses Drupal and Apache SOLR.
  • Extensive use of Google Custom Search technologies provides one-stop search for forms, online services, or data.
  • The state’s mobile site (m.ca.gov) features web-based mobile applications in which the data is fetched from Google Fusion Tables.
  • The News hub (news.ca.gov) runs on an Apache system, and is information is fetched from state servers, YouTube, and Twitter.

Innovative Use of Technology

The state of California runs its award-winning portal in-house, using state resources. Even without a formal state portal program, the state must rely on the innovative use of people and processes to keep the portal sites and template updated and relevant.

The template can be used across many different platforms, so agencies can use different content management systems, or even choose to not have a system.  The use of a template to improve usability, accessibility, and business identity while, in itself, may not appear unique, has rarely been used successfully on such a large government scale as it is in California. Common website standards such as accessibility, usability, and separation of content tie everything together so customers do not notice differences behind the scenes. The Google search and analytics components are embedded into the templates themselves. The use of the RSS feeds and social media throughout state government allows the creation of dynamic and real-time websites (news.ca.gov) and widgets that can be embedded on any website.

Another innovative approach is the transparency of the templates. The templates are publicly available to anyone who wants to use them.  In fact, cities, counties, and organizations (even from other states) are currently using the template or portions of it. Anyone can view the monthly meetings via webcast, and the wugshare.ca.gov blog is open for public comment.

The extraordinary collaboration in the development and ongoing revisions of the template is also innovative for government agencies. Creating, maintaining, and growing truly collaborative processes for feedback and revisions are not things that government agencies typically do well over the long-term. However, the ability of this project to do just that has kept the effort alive and strong for nearly five years. The success of this innovative collaboration is mirrored by the consistently strong showings that California’s state portal has made in the Best of the Web competition, winning 3rd place in 2008, 2nd place in 2009, and 1st place in 2010.

Web Templates

At the core of the Refresh Project are the acclaimed CA.gov web templates. The templates were designed to be flexible, allowing each department to maintain their own identity while simultaneously reflecting a common CA.gov brand and usability features. The templates can be downloaded in zip files that contain everything a state agency needs to develop their own website or mobile application. All of the files necessary to reproduce any of the approved color schemes are included in the file, including various navigation options. All of the “extras” are included such as design and graphic elements, containers, and breadcrumbs so agencies do not have to design these themselves.

Each version of the template from 2007 to 2010 was built off the success of the one before. As the California state portal has evolved into an award-winning website, great effort has been made to give agencies support they need to perform at their highest levels. Our latest efforts have been graphically updating the main web template and the deployment of the state’s mobile template.

Benefits

Ultimately, the millions of visitors to CA.gov websites are the beneficiaries of this effort since the effort has resulted in a web portal that is informative, intuitive, easy to use, and constantly improving.  Consistency among state websites enables visitors to recognize key features and navigate the pages efficiently. This includes consistent look-and-feel, navigation, and standardized colors. Compliance with the standards provides an added benefit for users with disabilities.

State agencies involved in web development also directly benefit as it helps them work smarter and more efficiently. Examples include:

  • Tools are at their fingertips, and new resources are added constantly to keep up with the ever-changing web.
  • As the state portal evolves, resources such as mobile templates, widgets, analytics, blogs, social media, RSS are passed down to agencies for easy adoption that ultimately better serves Californians. Having a standardized template eliminates the need for individual agencies to develop and create one on their own.
  • California’s web refresh efforts have been widely marketed to state agencies, from webmasters to public information officers. When the project first launched in 2007, the state could only identify a handful of webmasters. The word quickly spread — more than 500 individuals (representing departments, cities, and counties) have now subscribed to the Listserv (open to government employees only.)
  • Monthly meetings are well attended by webmasters, and these are publicly webcast. Members connect to others on a blog www.blogshare.ca.gov, receive frequent email communications, and learn about free training/workshops.
  • The common state branding of “CA.gov” increases public trust and confidence for users that they are on an authentic state website. The “CA.gov” designation is now well recognized by the public, and signals that each website bearing its stamp is an official state resource.

Collaboration

California’s web refresh effort was developed through a collaborative partnership between the Office of Technology Services, eServices Office, and state webmasters.  The effort has filled an important gap by providing tools, training, and expertise to make California’s websites usable, useful, and accessible.

As the project matures, collaboration has continued and improved as the Office of Technology Services listens to the feedback and develops new avenues for sharing information and ideas. The Office of Technology Services has spear-headed the communication of changes, and provides support of the technical elements of the templates. Individual agencies and departments are responsible for complying with the CA.gov look-and-feel, usability, and accessibility standards.

The effort has persisted over the years despite the fact there is not a formal “eServices Office.” Funding for the efforts come, in part, from the portal tax monies collected by departments.

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