Last month, civic website developer OpenCities published a study reviewing the websites of the 3,035 governments in the U.S. with more than 10,000 citizens.
The results show that the majority of government websites are not meeting the needs of the 21st century citizen.
- 32% are not optimized for mobile or tablets
- 89% have no or failing encryption
- 40% did not pass accessibility tests (i.e. are not ADA compliant)
- 9% are appropriate for the average American’s reading level
Cities are struggling to meet basic website standards. And the widening gap between commercial and government websites makes the need for improvement all the more pressing.
Luckily, there are some governments and private sector partners who are paving the way. Their experiences provide best practices for other governments looking to begin their own website redesign.
Here are 4 Best Practices for redesigning government websites:
1. Prioritize Public Users Over Government
The purpose of the website is to help users find information and use government services. The design, content, organization, and accessibility should focus on the needs of public users.
- Organize by topic rather than department or any other internal structure.
- Be critical of current content. If it’s not user-centric, let it go.
- Departments do not need equal representation. Make the most frequently visited parts of the site the most accessible.
Sacramento County’s website features a “How do I…?” tap on the homepage,
allowing users to intuitively navigate to what they need.
- Maintain a cohesive design across all pages. Individual departments or agencies should not be designing their own parts.
2. Understand Your Audience
Part of prioritizing your users means understanding their needs. Some best practices are universal, while others will need to be personalized to your community.
- Use data to understand what people want from your website. Research can be as easy as poking around in Google Analytics, looking through emails, installing a widget to allow online reviews, or doing informal interviews.
- Make sure your website is ADA compliant so all users can make use of its features.
- User-friendly means: mobile and tablet compatible, high quality images, less text, and easily searchable.
- Don’t be concerned about having a long homepage–people are used to scrolling.
Arkansas.gov features a search box front and center.
When considering new content for the website, ask these three questions:
- Why is the content useful?
- Who is this content for?
- Is the format right for the job?
3. Iterate, iterate, iterate
Agile methodology–taking projects in chucks and improving throughout the process–is the new name of the game. Government IT projects should no longer be in the dark until the big publish. Plan, test, get feedback, improve, and repeat.
- Beta test your website to work more flexibly, incorporate feedback, and get community buy-in.
- Stay in continuous contact with your vendor so they can help you brainstorm and problem solve as you go.
- Create efficient feedback loops internally so employees can weigh in without slowing down the process. Create broad feedback loops for public users so you get diverse representation.
- Use open source platforms and tools that will grow with your website. Otherwise, you risk your project being outdated before you finish.
4. Recognize cost savings
Website redesigns are not a one-time expenditure, nor are they a financial loss. They are a continuous investment in an online service model that provides governments with overall cost savings.
- Think of your website as a two-way street. Instead of static information, it provides interactive communication and self-service delivery models.
- Create a matrix of current services based on these two dimensions, and prioritize online-service delivery accordingly:
- Learn from peer governments. A study of Utah’s online services found an average cost savings of $13.20 per transaction for a service provided online rather than in-person.
Government websites are no longer about telling the story of the community or the people who work there. Their most useful purpose is connecting public services to the modern consumer.
Great websites increase efficiency while also increasing accessibility. They recognize that the public sector must evolve with the rest of society in order to provide quality service. With this in mind, a new website design is a giant step in the right direction, but should be only the first of many toward a 21st century government.