How the State of Georgia provides innovative digital services to citizens

An interview with Nikhil Deshpande of Office of Digital Services for the State of Georgia on how he and his team provides digital services to digital citizens in innovative ways.

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If you have an Amazon Alexa, you can now find out how to renew your driver’s license with a simple question to Alexa.

The State of Georgia is the first state to integrate Amazon Echo into its digital services platform. Calvin Rhodes, CIO of Georgia, created the Office of Digital Services within the Georgia Technology Authority and appointed Nikhil Deshpande as Chief Digital Officer for the State of Georgia.

Over the past few years Nikhil has made remarkable progress on improving digital services to digital citizens in innovative ways. Nikhil has won several recognitions and awards and was named to the prestigious list of 40 Under 40 for 2016 by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Nikhil also served as adjunct faculty at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design for ten years, where he taught graduate classes in Interaction Design and Game Development. I had the opportunity to meet with Nikhil to better understand how the State of Georgia is improving digital service delivery to its citizens. Following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Phil Weinzimer: How has technology evolved during the past few years enabling State Governments to improve delivery of services to its citizens?

Nikhil Deshpande: For the longest time citizens have interacted with government on traditional, non-digital platforms. Once the web matured, interactions moved to smaller devices that fit in our palms, and conversations moved to social media and online chats. The recent years have added a variety of channels and devices to how people interact with government.

As government organizations are still coping with digitization, citizens expect the government to deliver services with the same finesse and availability as the private sector. Change is a slow-moving agent in government and the gap between government service delivery and citizen expectations keeps growing. Digital Services Georgia (DSGa) helps state agencies serve citizens where they are rather than believing the proverbial “if you build it, they will come.”

In 2014 we made the entire GeorgiaGov web platform mobile friendly through responsive design. We made this happen before the mobile usage exceeded 25% across the 80+ state agency and elected official sites hosted on this platform (currently, mobile usage is closer to 49% of all traffic). In 2016, with the emergence of digital assistants and voice interfaces, DSGa started a project to offer the most popular content on its flagship website, Georgia.gov, on Amazon’s Alexa. The following year, we launched the State of Georgia’s first Alexa Skill, Ask GeorgiaGov. Digital assistants are a growing norm for everyone, but a large population of people with limited abilities depend on voice interactions.

PW: The State of Georgia has over 120 State Agencies that deliver a myriad of services to citizens and businesses. What is your charter as Chief Digital Officer for the State of Georgia?

ND: Citizens rely on government information and services. From regular interactions like food stamps or child support to an annual tax filing, citizens expect an experience with minimal friction. It is critical to drive the mission of citizen centered service delivery in an organization centered culture. As the Chief Digital Officer for the state, my charter is the following:

  • Drive citizen centric digital solutions: The DSGa team works with state agencies to plan, design, and deliver information and services in a way that is easy for citizens to access and use. My responsibility is to make sure the State of Georgia builds citizen centric digital experiences.
  • Build capacity within the state workforce to deliver digital solutions: It is critical to adapt to modern solutions and skills as the technology landscape changes. When we started using Drupal, an open source web publishing platform, we created an education track to keep our 500+ content managers up to speed on web standards and best practices.
  • Consult with agencies for best practices: The DSGa team — comprised of digital strategists, engineers, designers, and content and data specialists — help state agencies strategize relevant solutions. We follow a problem-first approach and peel the problem onion with several questions before we start troubleshooting solutions.

PW: How do you interact with the various state agencies in your role as Chief Digital Officer?

ND: While the title is new, I have been in this role since 2012. To have a successful digital services model, we need a steady flow of conversations and interactions at several levels. As Chief Digital Officer, I can be more effective if I have visibility into the operational and strategic challenges of our partner agencies.

We have a support request system for agencies to ask questions, seek advice, or provide suggestions. My team and I monitor support requests to spot and fix common challenges with a round-robin support system. Through two-week shifts in tier 1 support, every team member better understands the intricacies of the platform and the daily frustrations our agency partners face. With an open dialogue, we strive to understand what our agencies need before they do.

As we learn more about our partners and their needs, we invite them all into the conversation through blog posts, newsletters, and events. For the last five years, we’ve hosted a biannual conference called GOVTalks to discuss success stories, common challenges, and upcoming changes. We also invite private sector speakers to discuss the latest topics in service delivery. These events are a great opportunity to connect directly with content managers and agency leadership.

Finally, we recently kicked off a new Center of Excellence group that pulls together stakeholders across state agencies to discuss common goals and issues, and to draft enterprise standards and best practices that will ensure all agencies are marching towards a common direction in their goals of digital service delivery.

PW: What innovation projects have been incorporated by digital services throughout the state agencies?

ND: I’ve always seen innovation as a byproduct of solving a problem. The key is to identify a problem while it is on the horizon. My team is in the trenches of service delivery and has the advantage of close proximity to day to day challenges.

Once we identify a need, we work towards a solution. While innovation in the digital world often seems chaotic and unstructured, we take a decidedly deliberate approach to enhancing our platform and our offerings, with each year’s initiatives building on the ones before.

  • In 2012 we built a web publishing platform which hosted about 55 state agency websites. Running on a single code base, this platform provided the needed flexibility and scalability with the cost saving of a multi-tenant model.
  • Georgia was one of the first states in 2013 to start using social media as a major customer service platform by creating meaningful citizen engagements.
  • In 2014 we made the entire web publishing platform responsive to adapt to the variety of devices accessing government information. Georgia was the first state to implement this across the enterprise.
  • In 2015 Georgia was one of the early states to make our web publishing platform accessible and compliant to WCAG2.0 (Level AA) standards. This effort made sure citizens with different abilities can access state information and services without technology barriers.
  • In 2016 we created a data platform to visualize data for easy citizen interaction.
  • Our recent project, in 2017, connected Amazon’s Alexa to the popular content on Georgia.gov through a skill called AskGeorgiaGov. Another key project of the year was the GeorgiaGov platform HTTPS-Only. Aligning to the federal standard that all browsing data should be private and secure, we enabled all 80+ websites to provide information through secure connections.
  • We are working on building a more flexible digital platform in 2018. With an omni channel approach, this platform will syndicate content from one place to multiple channels. By enabling a single source of truth model for state information and services, we hope to provide consistency and synchronous messaging to our citizens.

PW: Georgia is the first state to integrate Amazon Echo into its digital services platform. How does this work and how do you see it expanding into other services?

ND: To address this audience, we connected the popular content from Georgia.gov to Amazon Alexa by creating a Drupal based connector. This Amazon skill, known as Ask GeorgiaGov, answers frequent questions like “How do I renew my drivers license?” and “How do I register my boat?”

In preparing the skill, we had to scrub and present our content in a way that supports delivery via conversation. There is a difference in delivering content on a web page and a conversational interface. On a web page, we can group related information together and expect a citizen to glance through the page for what they need. But with a conversational interface, when the ability to skim is limited, a citizen will get frustrated if Alexa says a page-worth of information before answering their question. To handle this, we had to insert several conditional checkpoints to match the content to the aural intent. This effort to optimize content ended up making our web content shorter and more direct, benefiting everyone, no matter how they access this information.

PW: Georgia has won a number of awards for its innovative approach in Digital Services and you’ve been helping other states understand how to improve its Digital Services strategy?

ND: It is a wonderful opportunity to collaborate. I have been lucky to have continued leadership support from our state CIO and equally lucky to retain an amazing core team for several years. This helps us to move forward with compounded momentum and focus on innovative projects that solve real problems. My goal is to keep sharing that experience with other organizations so they can have a head start.

When Georgia went the open source route, very few states had implemented Drupal and none had implemented it at an enterprise level. We were scrambling to find organizations who had done this to learn from their lessons. Ever since, my team has prioritized documenting our work and sharing the lessons and successes with other organizations looking for advice. We’ve open sourced relevant code, and I have been speaking at conferences across the nation, doing webinars and one-on-one consulting. Several members from my team do the same and it benefits us equally.

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As Chief Digital Officer for the state of Georgia, Nikhil Deshpande leads the Office of Digital Services Georgia under the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA).

Nikhil envisioned and led state government’s transition to an enterprise web-publishing platform based on Drupal, an open source content management system hosted in the cloud. The platform currently supports over 80 state agency websites. Under his direction, Georgia became the first state in the nation to use Drupal across it's enterprise and meet special needs of constituents with a range of disabilities affecting vision, hearing, motion and cognition making the platform Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 AA compliant.

Nikhil strongly advocated the use of social media for Georgia.gov when using social media for government was not common and established a presence for the state on Facebook and Twitter to quickly address citizens’ questions and concerns.

Nikhil has won several recognitions and awards. He has been named to the prestigious list of 40 Under 40 for 2016 by the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Nikhil also served as adjunct faculty at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design for 10 years, where he taught graduate classes in Interaction Design and Game Development.

You can follow Nikhil on Twitter @nikofthehill and connect with him at Nikhil.Deshpande@gta.ga.gov

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