Creating a useful government website

Sometimes my worlds collide. I’m building a website for a county in Minnesota. I usually scan Government Technology for broadband news. Today they have a article on website redesigns for government websites. I figured there were enough readers here who might play a role in website redesign and/or government communication that it might be helpful to share my notes.

First lesson if your homepage is celebrating some award from 2007, you’re not alone. When looking at NYC, the Mayor’s Office found…

He found 343 distinct sites, some of them abandoned and dating back to 2003. “We were finding crazy things that we had no idea existed,” he said, “but if you were a citizen you might stumble across them and think they were relevant.”

And NYC might actually have a FTE dedicated to the site. I know lots of counties, cities an townships in rural Minnesota do not.

So what’s a government agency to do? Learn from what’s been done…

“From a branding standpoint, a whole bunch of logos and identity systems were being used,” he said. “From an information architecture standpoint, the navigation and menus were structured differently depending on which sites you were on. Some sites had search and some didn’t. Some search experiences were good, some not so good. Every site should be responsive for mobile today, right? But a few years back, we had a lot of sites where the experience on a mobile device was not good.”

There are tools out there not that make it easier to delegate web publishing. You don’t need to know HTML. There are numerous content management systems – from open source options like WordPress to proprietary government solutions such as Gov Office. You need to make sure the folks you deputize to post content are responsible with what they post – but generally outlining what’s appropriate and what’s not is enough to keep people on track. Also the folks responsible for the information generally know what needs to be online (mandated), what constituents really want and what format is most helpful.

Second lesson – people want transactions online. They article notes that “Putting more government transactions online continues to be a challenge for states.” But the good news is that many transactions have been made available through the State website – registering to vote, paying property taxes, renew a license plate and more. Sometimes it’s a matter of assessing what can be handed off to streamline what becomes your responsibility.

Third lesson, citizens what two-way communication…

“The old way of thinking about a government website was essentially that it was a one-way communication. Mayors, governors and commissioners saw it as a way to push their information out to people, and less as a transactional platform,” he said. “I think that is changing now, but it hasn’t come easy.”

How much communication is appropriate is up to the organization. Sometimes social media channels can provide an “easy” platform. It’s easy in that it’s easy to set up but it does require monitoring and it is very public. You need to be prepared to handle delicate situations. It can be helpful to have a few guidelines in place before anything happens. For example have a policy for when a citizens lodges a complaint on social media and names a specific person. Do you address it online, move it offline, investigate and decide? There’s no wrong answer but it’s easier to make a best decision when parameters have been put in place.

Fourth lesson, online is different…

“The information architecture was almost a one-to-one correspondence with the organization structure of the government itself. It was essentially a digital manifestation of the org chart,” he said. “We realized that meant that the public needed to understand how government worked if they were going to effectively navigate the website. If you want to pay your water bill, do you pay the water department or the revenue department or the water revenue bureau? It’s not intuitive which one is going to provide you with the services you need.”

I’m working with this right now. It’s easy when someone walks into the courthouse to ask where to get a passport – much more difficult online. (There isn’t a Passport Office.) So working on the public’s view is important. And again the people on the frontlines will be helpful. The person who processes passports knows if citizens are frustrated finding the office and they might have some good ideas on how to fix that.

Final lesson, the website is never done but iterative upgrades are easier on the annual budget and easier for citizens to handle…

What has emerged from these two Web redesign efforts is the importance of using modern, open source tools and doing constant iterative design rather than “big bang” projects every five years.

So much changes in five years; you just can’t keep up with user expectations in that timeframe. And users prefer small changes. I have found that working with open source tools has been helpful because third party tools (PayPal to Facebook) tend to work well with open source tools.

One added bonus note – I mention that the State has a number of services available online. You might also look at community efforts – such as SeeClickFix. It’s a website where citizens can report items of interest. I recently used it to report some offensive graffiti, which was removed within two weeks.

This entry was posted in Government by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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