Municipal websites are the digital front door to a city: a place for sharing information, conducting business, and collecting feedback about what residents want and need. When government websites are easy to use, it results in less phone calls from the public, saving time and money for government staff.
Photo Credit: Molly McLeod, Code for America
This spring, we’ll be providing resources and tools to make government websites more responsive to residents’ needs. And through our Peer Network, we’ll be providing ways for government staff across the country to connect and share best practices in their own website redesign efforts.
In research through our Digital Front Door initiative, we’ve interviewed dozens of IT and Communications Directors to learn more about the current state of city websites. We’ve heard genuine desire to deliver more accessible content and services to residents. But doing so is challenging, largely due to:
- Workflow turf wars. City websites often sit between IT and Communications Departments. Sometimes IT departments manage the code and server-side of the website, while the communications department is responsible for the content. Other times IT Departments oversee everything, and the people who are most connected to the actual information or policies (i.e. subject matter experts) are not involved with writing the content that goes online. Often, there is distrust between these two departments, which creates a fragmented city experience.
- Lack of a content strategy. City websites are filled with thousands of PDF documents that often are not parsable by software, unreliable if text is extracted, and cannot be found in search engines. Outdated press releases that announce a program are on the homepage, but there is no navigation to the actual program itself. A site’s layout and information architecture is organized by government departments and is not helpful to a resident, who thinks in terms of actual services. Content is often wordy, filled with jargon, and not available in multiple languages.
- Unclear goals around a website’s overall performance. Cities don’t have clear goals around how their website should be improving and better meeting user needs. At the same time, most sites don’t collect baseline analytics data to measure improvements, or provide feedback loops for citizens to say whether or not a city’s web content is helpful.
And while these challenges are widely shared by cities around the country, we’re also beginning to see some great things:
- Oakland, CA has a Web Analytics Club that meets regularly to look over the city website’s Google Analytics and better understand what their residents are looking for on their site.
- Louisville, KY has their 311/IT staff using chat-style customer service tools to help online visitors find what they’re looking for.
- Denver, CO is working with user experience firms to conduct research in coffee shops on how residents actually use their site.
- Carlsbad, CA periodically surveys their content contributors to better understand their experience of updating the website.
- Philadelphia, PA is conducting a city-wide survey to better understand how resident use their site. They’re also building a pattern library to give content contributors more freedom to design their own pages.
- Jackson, TN has digitized key transactions and made them easy to find on their homepage.
These pioneers are leading the way, and we want to help more cities be able to meet their residents where they are: online. We want to help cities use the web to reach underserved communities, create a positive experience for mobile users, and empower subject matter experts to edit and own their web content.
A little spring cleaning is the perfect opportunity to improve the user experience of city websites on both sides of the table: for residents and for the city staff responsible for maintaining and updating the site. It’s an opportunity to make meaningful changes to your website, without a big budget, without cumbersome technology, and without fighting political battles.
It’s time to roll up our sleeves, shake out the Welcome mat of your homepage, and dust off the cobwebs buried on your website’s content. Join us as we reimagine the city website experience for residents and city employees.