North Dakota looks to Drupal for improved user experience

The state's new website template is the first step in a larger unification initiative that’s putting cloud and mobile first.

North Dakota has saved more than $500,000 by moving 26 agencies to a common website platform based on Drupal.

“Simply from a technology and efficiency perspective, it didn’t make sense for every agency to start from scratch every time they needed a website,” said Cliff Heyne, enterprise citizen experience program administrator at the state’s IT Department.

The standardization effort builds on a template the state developed several years ago for agencies to build websites. The problem then was agencies would customize the template, leading to the need for individual load, security and accessibility tests. Plus, when one agency added a feature that others could benefit from, the other agencies had to spend money to get the same capability.

Now that template has become a fully functioning website.

“We can do one-off changes on a website that aren’t applied to anybody else, but that agency still benefits from all the money that’s put into the platform from the enhancement that they did,” Heyne said. If an agency needs customizations on its website, and those changes would  be good for everyone using the platform, the initiating agency will pay for the customization, he said, "but everybody gets to benefit from it because that work gets folded back into the platform and pushed out to everybody.”

Other benefits of having of a common code base are easier security patch delivery and improved user experience because state agency websites gain a common look and feel. “We don’t force agencies to conform to a certain style, but we do have a default template that most people stick with,” Heyne said. When more agencies use the  default template, the "citizen experience across … websites is consistent.”

The platform is available to all branches of state government, but it is the standard back-end platform for the executive branch at this point, North Dakota CIO Shawn Riley said. The front end of the 26 agency websites that have moved their back ends to the platform are still legacy, he added, but they will be updated, too, as part of the project’s next phase.

“We had to be able to build that architecture,” Riley said. “Think of it as you have to dig the basement before you can pour the foundation, before you can put up the studs.”

Right now, the website platform is cloud-capable. “Most of it is in the cloud, some of it is going to the cloud,” he said.

Agencies looking to use the platform typically sit down with IT Department staff to map out their strategic plan and determine what data needs to be ported over based on what the agency is trying to deliver to the customers, Riley said. It typically takes a couple weeks to go through the process.

The website effort is part of a larger IT unification initiative. The IT Department is changing the entire operational structure around service management, software development and project portfolio management, and it’s putting cloud and mobile first.

The websites were the first effort in the initiative because “the website side of this is proportionately small in comparison,” Riley said. “It was technically straightforward, it was something we could manage in our budgets very quickly, and we had a groundswell of folks who said, ‘Yes, this is something we want to make better,’" he said. "Everything aligned to make this that low-hanging fruit to be able to push forward and get done.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has called for a more-streamlined approach to government. “We have approximately 160 front doors that come in from all of the different organizations within the state,” Riley said. “The state citizen is not able to quickly and easily flow across state services. They have to go and find them all.”

Ultimately, the idea is to provide a consolidated experience shaped by data, he said. For instance, officials want to be able to understand what people are at risk of becoming addicted to drugs so that resources can be directed to those populations, stemming a problem before it starts.

“We want to be able to enable the policymakers and enable the executive branch, enable the legislative branch, enable the judicial branch to be able to make decisions based on data that is more comprehensive than it has been in the past,” Riley said.

The department is working with the state legislature on the unification effort, which will help the state bring in new technologies that can help speed delivery  and reduce development time and cost per unit of service.

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