California’s Office of Digital Innovation is growing in both size and scope.
That message of growth took center stage this month as ODI leaders offered a public update on the group’s projects and strategy to modernize state services. The group sprang from the shared desire from the state legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom to create a digital team that could reimagine new solutions, processes, and policies in service delivery. And since its launch in 2020, the ODI has grown from 11 technologists to 20-plus, with ambitions to increase to 50 soon.
ODI Director Udaya Patnaik spoke at the TechCA Forum on July 15, crediting the office’s growth to an overwhelming demand from state agencies. Requests and state project proposals fill his inbox daily. With the activity, Patnaik said it had compelled his team to prioritize projects based on urgency and the Newsom Administration’s statewide objectives.
“In terms of the demand for ODI, at this point, it’s off the charts,” Patnaik said. “…And so obviously, we have to look at the issues that are the greatest needs for Californians.”
Those “issues” are diverse, but Patnaik pointed to a few standout projects that included Covid19.ca.gov, California’s state COVID-19 emergency response website, and development work for Alpha.ca.gov, the ongoing—and ambitious endeavor—to prototype a new state website.
Patnaik said the pandemic’s unprecedented impact has commanded significant time and resources from the team and—based on current needs—will likely continue to do so. ODI collaborated with multiple departments to support the site. Tasks included working with the California Health & Human Services Office of Innovation and the California Department of Technology (CDT) to create a site for vaccination information and tracking statistics for infections and deaths.
As it stands now, the site’s dashboard reports nearly 3.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 63,740 COVID-19 related deaths.
“I think when we started [working on] Covid last year, none of us had any concept of the kind of time it was going to take or the kind of hours it was going to take,” Patnaik said, adding the ODI is now fully committed to seeing the project through.
“We are not at the end of the pandemic. There are a fair number of folks that are tracking the intensive care unit numbers and our ICU bed capacity. They’re looking at our case rates. They’re seeing them go up.” Patnaik said. “And we’re not at the vaccination levels that we need to be in the state to guarantee everybody is going to be free from harm. That means there is a whole lot of work left to do.”
Outside of COVID-19 and the state website, the ODI’s projects have focused on California’s drought, fire prevention, cannabis regulation, a spate of social services, and the state’s efforts to deploy a digital ID—an online system for driver’s licenses and state ID cards. Beyond these projects, Patnaik said a broader work is underway to ensure easy credit card transactions for public-facing departments.
Whatever the task, Patnaik said the ODI has been adaptable, ready to build from scratch or make improvements, whatever is needed.
“At ODI were going from ideas to ship [product launch], we are doing the initial concept work working with our partners, there’s a lot of prototyping that has to happen, a lot of MVP work, and that’s to say we can really create something that can actually help folks,” Patnaik said.
Yet, while its partners and projects are varied, ODI Chief Deputy Director Anne Neville-Bonilla said the work has also expanded the state’s digital capacity for fast delivery and quality products. As an example, she pointed to the newly established design standards, principles, and content assets.
Neville-Bonilla said these design elements emerged from the many hours spent on COVID-19 and Alpha.ca.gov, laying a foundation for rapid dev work. California’s drought resource site, Drought.ca.gov, is proof. At Newsom’s request, the team started developing the site on July 2 and taking it live on July 7.
“Speed isn’t an indicator of quality all the time, but I mention the timelines because absent the reusable infrastructure and design assets, this simply wouldn’t have happened,” Neville-Bonilla said. “We were able to bring quality to this because of those assets and that infrastructure.”
At the event, attendees questioned the team about its long-term vision and how it would measure its success. To these questions, Patnaik said they were looking at several outcomes, but the results all centered on the user experience—underscoring accessibility, equity, and responsiveness.
“We have to get to a point where our experiences are not just easy and simple, but uplifting and automatic,” Patnaik said.
Elaborating, Patnaik said that for most departments, services are more or less reactionary to residents’ needs. Departments wait for residents to make requests, then try to respond quickly. In the future, the ODI’s aspiration is for California to anticipate needs before requests arrive and to predict and preempt those needs with intelligent services eventually.
Patnaik said data analytics would be a core part of this innovation work.
“Ultimately, building better government services and digital solutions really does require taking a look at the whole picture,” Patnaik said. “And the whole picture really does mean that we’ve got to work with departments to detect, create and improve the programs and processes.”