The Raleigh-Durham area has long been known for the Research Triangle Park, where Fortune 100 firms rub elbows with high-tech start-ups and university spin-outs. Now that culture of innovation, fueled by the private sector and State universities, is expanding to the heart of North Carolina’s capital city.
Innovation is also evolving in what may seem to be an improbable place state government’s information technology operations. North Carolina opened its Innovation Center in 2013, a working lab where CIOs, state employees, students and industry collaborate in a “try before you buy” approach to evaluating technology systems. The iCenter is located a few blocks from the capitol in the Green Square Building, the LEED—certified offices of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Red Hat moved its global headquarters and 900 employees, along with their video games and ping pong tables, to downtown Raleigh in 2013. New Citrix offices that will be home to five hundred employees and a rooftop yoga studio are under construction in the warehouse district, and the company recently hosted a “Shark Tank”—style competition for local start-ups. Public-private partnerships are thriving, with North Carolina State University leading a U.S. Department of Energy—funded advanced manufacturing hub that will develop next-generation power electronics.
“The State, like the private sector, must shift from a technology-centric view to one that focuses on the needs of customers”
The premise is simple: technology products are put through the paces and must be proven to work as promised. That approach may be routine for the Innovation Center’s private sector neighbors, but it represents a major shift for state government. During our testing process, more than a dozen state agencies and two state universities have identified technology that provides real solutions and moved forward with those that meet the State’s needs.
Our testing has already influenced our purchasing decisions, such as a successful proof of concept that led to the rollout of Office 365. At a time when state government is tightening its belt, immersive virtual meeting hardware and software has allowed us to avoid travel costs while expanding our access to businesses and schools. State agencies identified user personas that informed our evaluation of hosted virtual desktop technology, and form factor testing by employees in the field helped us determine which mobile devices to buy.
The innovative solutions that are chosen through the iCenter will also improve customer service and support our vision of making interactions with the government as simple as checking scores or shopping on a smart phone. Citizens are accustomed to a digital world in which they can work or shop anytime, anywhere, on any device. The State, like the private sector, must shift from a technology-centric view to one that focuses on the needs of our customers.
Computer science students from NC State are developing a mobile-ready website that helps entrepreneurs start businesses in North Carolina by integrating the current multi-agency manual process. Our collection of incongruent and dated state agency websites is also being redesigned with a common look and feel that will simplify and enhance the customer experience. As we move toward offering our citizens more digital services, the changes required are more than cosmetic. The web redesign, and all future digital efforts, will use quantitative and qualitative data including usability testing to design and refine our online interactions. Emphasis will be placed on the content that is most essential to the user’s context, and on how to present that content as clearly and quickly as possible.
We’re working to deliver these improvements amid the usual challenges associated with government IT, such as a technology deficit caused by years of underinvestment. We are fortunate, though, to have state leaders who recognize the importance of improving our technology capabilities. Our governor understands that technology is the key to making state government more efficient, and was the first in North Carolina to elevate the State CIO to a Cabinet position. In 2013, the governor recommended and the General Assembly approved a $60 million fund that puts us on the path toward fixing and modernizing our IT capabilities. Just as North Carolina building an expansive highway system in support of economic development, we are now committed to building the technology infrastructure of the future.
We’re also bringing more cost-effective business practices to government. Centralizing and virtualizing servers resulted in immediate savings with the potential for more cost-cutting in the future. Along with the iCenter’s, “try before you buy” principle, we’re taking a consumption-based, “pay for what we use” approach to licensing agreements. Renegotiating two contracts for software, licenses and support saved the State $3 million last year. We will continue to negotiate more favorable terms with our vendor partners as opportunities become available.
Our goals for modernizing our IT infrastructure are lofty and the challenges we face are many, but the State’s culture of innovation is thriving amid the collaboration between our public and private entities. As innovation extends from the business community to State government, our technology ecosystem is growing in a way that will make State services more efficient and accessible for everyone who lives, works, and plays in North Carolina.