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Site transformation first task in state chief digital officer role

Without the bottomless resources of private-sector organizations, one state content manager put upgrades up for bids. Her plan, she hopes, will serve as a model for other states.

Massachusetts' first chief digital officer, Holly St. Clair, leads the state's Digital Services department, which strives to make "every interaction with our government ... faster, easier, more meaningful and wicked awesome," she says.

In her two years in the chief digital officer role, St. Clair oversaw a remake of the state's content management system and website, Mass.gov. We sat down with her at the Acquia Engage conference to discuss the particulars of that implementation, and how working under state budget constraints drove certain priorities to be addressed first.

What's it like being the CDO for a whole state, and how will it evolve over the next couple years?

Holly St. Clair: Since I'm the first CDO of Massachusetts, there's not a long history to read into about how our role will change. The chief digital officer role is evolving in general. I know what's on our plate for the next couple years to work on: Digital content strategy and how we're going to invest our time and dollars, to create a digital infrastructure to keep up with rapidly changing tech -- and can limit the overhead that we have to continue to support while evolving over time.

Our users' expectations are set by the private sector. What people expect government to do now is what the private sector does on digital, and our budget and time is half the private sector. We have to serve everyone, we can't just say, 'This is our market segment, so we only have to make sure we do X, Y and Z.' So I think we need to figure out how to create an omnichannel strategy for our digital content and then how to drag it through to the full user journey -- which in some cases is on paper and in person.

What was the catalyst for the major Mass.gov redesign recently rolled out?

St. Clair: Our website software was very old and sunsetting, so we had to get off of it. Governor [Charlie] Baker and Lieutenant Governor [Karyn] Polito really are interested in serving constituents better, and the old website was agency-focused -- you really had to understand the alphabet soup to get to the department you needed to get the services. The idea [of the redesign] was that there was a single face of government -- you just want to get a parking pass, you just want to renew your driver's license -- you don't necessarily have to go to the concrete building anymore and know exactly what department it is.

Holly St. Clair, Massachusetts Chief Digital OfficerHolly St. Clair

Seventy percent of our constituents arrive at the pages of what they're looking for through a search engine. They often would get lost at our old website -- 45% would not find what they were looking for -- and that's not a great statistic. There was a lot of clutter, 250,000 pages that would get in their way. How to get a parking permit would be buried under five years of meeting minutes. We needed to segment and organize our content.

What challenges did upgrading your content platform pose?

St. Clair: Trying to decide where to start. Everybody's content is important, each segment of our population is very important. But we had to start somewhere, so we focused on a volumetric approach: Bringing in data scientists and looking at the high-volume services first. We identified 16 different constituent-facing services that were clusters of information that people were looking for such as renewing your driver's license, passing the bar exam, unemployment benefits, how to start a business. We really focused on those top 16 user journeys and then working with our other agencies and organizations to bring the other services they [perform] into the new content management system.

The other challenge was to change the way we're looking at our content to move to a constituent-service approach: Instead of talking about ourselves, talking about what our constituents need. It sounds easier to identify than it was.

Constituents first, but what about the employees?

St. Clair: We used our old website for everything -- content management around when we talked to each other in state government, when we talked to municipalities or regional governments or the feds. … Internal reports would get in the way of constituents finding what they needed. We'll be turning to what we call "government-to-government" next to help our internal stakeholders access the information they're looking for.

How did you select Acquia for a CMS?

We chose Drupal because we wanted open- source for this project, because we wanted to share what we're building with other state governments.
Holly St. Clairchief digital officer, Massachusetts

St. Clair: We had a procurement process for a Drupal team, a hosting team and a design team, and Acquia [won]. We chose Drupal because we wanted open source for this project, because we wanted to share what we're building with other state governments. There's no commodity service for content management systems for state governments; they're all bespoke, for a different level of government, or a different business case.

Drupal 8 has accessibility and security upgrades coming. We also found that very promising.

In your chief digital officer role, what's the next project?

St. Clair: Focusing on our content and our business partners on how we write for the web. We took a distributed approach instead of centralized approach for the content itself. We held a lot of trainings, videos and how-tos to teach frontline workers in different departments how to write for the web and building their capacity to do that work.

Now we're looking at data and analytics and how to incorporate it into the Drupal editing side so when an author goes in they can see how their page is performing -- putting performance analytics next to the author to encourage them to evaluate how a page works and get help from the digital team if they need it. That's going to be interesting to figure out, what is meaningful for non-techies.

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