Helping California respond to a global crisis

The challenge

In 2019, the new Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, called on the state government to innovate and improve the way it approached service delivery and technology investments. Public Digital was engaged to review the state’s website and the digital team behind it.

Public Digital’s founding team is globally famous for creating the UK’s GOV.UK website, which blazed a trail for how government websites can make public services and information easier to access and use.

The new administration wanted to provide an easily found home for Californians to find information and services, reduce costly calls and requests for information, and kick-start a culture change to redesign digital services around users.

As the most populous state in the United States and world’s fifth largest economy, the government serves a diverse population of citizens and businesses; and existing websites and services were seen as cumbersome and inaccessible, contributing to inequality and costing the state money.

Three people in front of a California grizzly bear statue
Mike with the team at the Government's office

What we did

We ran a comprehensive review, looking at the performance of the current website, reviewing performance, security, content and accessibility analytics, alongside user journeys and experience. We also explored the goals, capabilities, ways of working, governance and team structure behind it. We recommended a fundamental reset of the way California set up delivery of a new team with new skills, empowered to focus on user needs and user experience.

We helped to attract and bring together a delivery team for; a multidisciplinary team combining existing talent with new skills from outside government. This team delivered an alpha which demonstrated the benefits of this new way of working, with accessibility, performance and usability at the heart of the website, so services could be used by all Californians, regardless of their abilities and means.

When the rapid spread of COVID-19 in early 2020 triggered an unprecedented global crisis, we (and the Alpha team) rapidly pivoted our work to take on the most urgent challenge: creating California’s COVID response website to give citizens the information and help they needed.

The Californian team in charge of the new website Alpha team
The team presenting their work surrounded by posters and post-it notes
The Alpha team presenting their work

Supporting the new team, we launched the alpha of in just 4 days, giving 40 million citizens clear and transparent information in seven languages.

To make this possible, we helped the team apply the ways of working that underpin modern, agile digital services, so the website could adapt and respond as public health guidance changed and new covid response services were launched. The site was multilingual, accessible and low weight, with Google scoring it 90 for speed - “exemplary high performance.” This was a huge step change from the state’s legacy websites.

At the height of the pandemic, iterated 2-3 times per day, with the team making changes based on real-time usage patterns, user feedback, and changing Covid policies. As new Covid-response services were launched - financial support, education support, testing and vaccines - the site could change to respond.

This world-leading Covid response set the benchmark for all future state digital services.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced: “The state will build on the lessons learned through establishing the website. The new website will be user-centered to allow Californians simple, easily understood transactions and to access all state information at a single portal.”

Mike Wilkening, Special Advisor on Digital Services, Office of the Governor said: California's digital services have been an important part of our response to COVID-19, helping to serve nearly 40 million residents in multiple languages. Public Digital has been an important partner, helping us think through what is possible and how to deliver."

Emma Gawen, Partner, said: "A crisis like COVID shows just how high quality, easy-to-access and easy-to-use government websites are today’s critical public infrastructure. The usability of public services, the clarity of content, and the ability to change rapidly as circumstances change literally save lives. It is never the wrong time to look at how well your teams and services are set up to respond quickly to users’ needs: you never know how important that might be in the future.”

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