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Digital Strategy in the Public Sector

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Billy Hylton and Deante Tyler Interview

Recently, Innovation Center Director Deante Tyler sat down with NCDIT Digital Solutions Director Billy Hylton to discuss the recent We Are NC Gov event and digital strategy in the public sector. Billy leads a team that takes a citizen-focused approach to web and digital services for North Carolina.

Deante:  Billy, a few days ago we  concluded a successful We are NC  GOV event on digital strategy. Tell us what the event was like and more importantly, what some of the key takeaways  were  from  the event. 

Billy:  Sure, I'm glad you think it was successful!

A few things: I was thrilled at the turnout of participants.  We had about 77 attendees out of 100 that signed up, so that was awesome!  I'm very proud of my team, as well. There was a point where they wanted to use their own money to have We are NC GOV t-shirts made. That was the point where it became a kind of  personal mission to do something that was pretty special, so that was good. The thread of user experience and citizen-centric digital services was weaved  throughout the entire  event. From an event planning standpoint, we really tried to think about the little things that add up in aggregate to something that would be really useful for those who came. So, the signage, the badges, the casual breakout sessions, we made it a point to include those details in the planning.  

Deante:  It sounds very similar to how you plan experiences from a digital perspective.  You really planned the  event as an experience.  

Billy:  Exactly!  That is  sort of  what we were  thinking about  since this was the first one of its kind.  It dawned on us that it’s kind of a good analog to what we're trying to do with delivering digital experiences for citizens.

Takeaways, I think for me,  number one is that state governments, including this one, need to really prioritize delivering citizen-centric services, resources and content, and consider end-user needs as well as our own business needs. I think another good takeaway  is that  digital services are moving beyond the browser  to  omni-channel experiences. This  change  impacts  our strategy in  how we structure content and  our  content strategy for the web. We need to be thinking beyond browsers. Consider the Georgia  example of the Alexa  pilot. The  takeaway  is  that  content is still king and we  see it as we go forward with different devices and different chat services like Alexa.  In that case the structure of content,  the taxonomies and so on are going to be even more important going forward.  

Deante:  Speaking of strategy, why do you think having an event like this has so much value in the public sector? 

Billy:  Yeah, that’s  a good question.  I think we can get in the track of our day to day,  with  meeting customer needs, and I tend to get a little tactical in some of our projects. We're all doing our jobs and there's just something about an event like this that it pulls you away from the day-to-day and where we're in a great space like the Innovation Center. Just as I started seeing the people assembling I thought, “this is great”. So many of the people in the room are not often gathering together for a talk.  To me, it is important to have diverse perspectives across our agencies and in addition having input across the different roles: communications, marketing, IT, even if we’re wearing different hats.  

Deante: And why is that?

Well,  one reason is because some of the biggest challenges and opportunities in terms of meeting citizen needs, meeting business needs, and particularly in the digital space. Often, they're so cross-organizational and they draw on people on the business side, from  comms, from IT.

The example I always go to when I think of the idea  of  a business one-stop, or a citizen wanting to start an LLC, and today you might start with a Google search, "How do I start a business in NC?" and the North Carolina portal NC.gov pops up. That may point you to the Secretary of State's website. Additionally, I think there's a role for the Department of Revenue and others. So, you're crossing multiple channels and agencies and there are different pieces of the puzzle that someone is interacting with and in terms of the experience, you might have different logos and the tone and voice of the different sites might be different -- the experience today is not “holistic”. So, getting back to the question of who's at the event, I think that mix and that diverse collection of state professionals is needed to address these larger challenges that are cross-organizational nature. And you really need that kind of that wide range.

Deante:  Speaking of the different roles that that came, I saw different types of participants: public officials, communications experts, developers, CIOs. Would you say it's a new practice to bring those different professionals together to talk about a kind of unified communications strategy? Why was it important to bring those different people to the table?

Billy: If you think about Nikhil's presentation and the part where he shows the Venn diagram of the citizen, the business, and technology, in the middle of that is Digital Services and they play a role. The voice that's not at the table is usually the citizen or the end-user. So, I think it's not entirely new outside of state government. The idea of digital services being a bridge for communications, for marketing, for IT and pulling those different parts together, I think that's where the digital services team can be really effective. It's very cliché, but we talk about silos and we all know how, from an operational day to day, what those silos look like in state government. The digital services idea really is a bridge between those different organizational roles and disciplines to with the ultimate goal of meeting those end user needs.

Deante:  Shifting  gears  a little bit, following up from that presentation and after having some time to digest it, what do you see is the future state digital strategy for the public sector, where should you see or where should we see the public sector going in the future?

Billy:  Well, clearly citizens and users want to engage with state government with the same ease and simplicity as the private sector. So, number one we're going to see what's already been in motion, we're going to see that continue and accelerate going forward as far as the governance of local, state or federal and others adopting the principles, the practices the capabilities to deliver citizen centric services and resources.
  
Deante: Right. To that statement, I heard a comment earlier about how citizens don't compare public sector or the state of North Carolina to other public-sector entities and compare the public sector to other private experiences that they've had like the Amazon experience being able to purchase simply.
  
Billy:  I think it's the idea that when you think about our lives outside of our work here in state government, many of us are on Amazon buying things and we get our business done on our bank website and day in and day out we're using these apps and websites. Now these other channels that we were just talking about, you start to build a set of expectations of how those things should work, how they should look and feel, what the experience should be like. When we step into this world we don't change those expectations, we carry those with us.

Likewise, when a citizen--to your very point--they go OK, well in these spheres of my life here's what I expect when I go to Wal-Mart. You know I buy something at the store, the brick and mortar Wal-Mart store, and when I use the Wal-Mart website or the app or some other channel I can expect a holistic experience. It's not like the branding and the way I’m communicated to radically changes, which is disruptive. I should be able to jump over to the government and have something fairly similar. That should be the goal,  right? Something that was said during We are NC GOV that kind of hit me was a little bit of a jolt. I have observed is that in my own life frankly, and my family, is you don't always even think of it as state government. You know you're trying to get something like “Where do I vote?” Or you have some questions for some simple need. And you know you go to Google going forward, maybe to the voice enabled device. You asked that question and you're not like "I want to make sure this response comes from my county government's website," it's just government. I think once we start to really parse that, you're like, "alright I realize this is regional government, local government, or state government," they work within these parameters. But when you know you're in your day to day life you're just moving quickly. You know the expectations are going to be similar across these different spheres whether government, private sector and beyond.

Deante:  Right. Would you say that there is an appetite across the industry, and by industry, public sector industry to be competitive or to deliver services similarly to the private sector as kind of a follow up? You've got the Amazon experience, you've got the banking or the mobile app experience, you've got these different experiences, would you say that that motivates public sector to be competitive? Or would you say that currently as an industry it's more the status quo to be competitive with other public-sector states? I guess in a nutshell, what motivates the digital service strategy from the public-sector  perspective?

Billy:  Yes,  so I think today as with many states, and ours included, we're going to benchmark ourselves with other states. We're also going with what we intuitively know, and we can look at data that shows that the expectations from citizens are more and more aligned with their experiences with the private sector.

What we'll start to see more of, and you really see this with Georgia, is recognizing that the business needs of state agencies may not always be aligned with the needs of citizens and end users. And it's a tough challenge to do really, once you start working through that as you may see there's a technology solution that's in progress for an agency that has a timeline, there's money, factoring in a lot of variables like security, etc. I think what's going to change going forward is a stronger advocacy by say a centralized digital services team and other stakeholders or practitioners to factor end-user needs, and maybe it's not always this must be exactly like what our end-users are experiencing with the private sector necessarily, but through user experience practices and principles and user research, we can at least understand what their expectation is and what they want to have achieved by using this tool and I think often we're going to see similarities in the outcome with what we see in the private sector. Nikhil said it best, you know, the public sector has made great strides to catch up to the private sector in several areas. But there is one glaring area where it is not and that is user experience and UX and design and the principles and practices that go along with that.

You know  that you start looking at Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others you have to have a culture and embedded principles of constant iterative improvement and user-centered design approaches to create that working, in tandem with the heavier engineering and development and backend and all that. And I think in some of those sorts of apps and private sector experiences that we're talking about, several years ago we started to see more of an adoption of these things because frankly it benefited their return on investment and was a competitive advantage with other players. The classic example would be Apple. If you just look at features and functionality of some of their early devices, for example, they may not be far and away better than a competitor. It was that attention to overall experience and how it feels to have “a thousand songs in your pocket,” you know that kind of thing that that that created such a strong brand.

Deante:  What should we expect in the future? Should we expect more events like this? What's your vision of promoting public sector digital strategy?

Billy:  Yeah, and we definitely want to have more events like this. It's great to hear folks afterwards saying “when is the next one and what's next?”  Of course, we’re already starting to look forward in terms of you know the next one -- is it open data? Is it really diving into the theme of cross-channel omni-channel experiences? I think going forward with digital strategy that will be, in an area that is not going away that we're going to continue to see attention from different states and this one included is “beyond the browser”… Nikhil gave the example of his kids, that they don't go straight to a website necessarily, they will ask their questions with Alexa and in my case its similar with my kids. So, from a strategic standpoint, again thinking about content strategy that supports not only current Web and digital initiatives, but how they were mapped to these future experiences and kind of “future proofing,” how we deliver information resources and content. So that is an area worth a future event that I think makes sense. With our team, and just getting to the tech a little bit, we’re on Drupal  Version 7 and it's primarily a website publishing system. Drupal 8 is more of a full digital publishing platform that really factors in experiences beyond websites. Considering how the content is structured across these sites today and going forward in terms of not just kind of plugging everything into one kind of block but breaking that out and using things like taxonomies and more structure… thinking ahead, you don't even know exactly where all we could be publishing content to, looking at watches and what we need to start taking the initial steps that will make it easier to meet users where they are. And that has been a theme of not just having them come to us to look at what we have on our websites for example but that meeting them where they are today and where they're going. So, I think that will be a key principle for our digital strategy going forward. You know, a couple of other things like we didn't talk much about in this conversation is about accessibility, that is something that we need to be considering. Users who have disabilities and when we think about Kim's talk – she said what are you doing to meet those needs will often result in a more usable site? You know improving usability with accessibility. So take that and then think about the federal guidelines around the Section 508 refresh and our goal of being WCAG 2.0 compliant. And so that's another area with accessibility that going forward we'll be more focused on than we have in the past.

Deante:  Great. How can people connect with you if they want to learn more about digital strategy in public sector?

Billy:  Yes. Reach out to me via email, phone, the digital team has a section on the DIT Web site. I'm on LinkedIn.

Deante:  Are you on Twitter?

Billy:  I'm on Twitter. @publicrealm