Grand Rapids, Mich., Nears a Completely Digital City Hall

In addition to publishing entirely new and conversational content, the city’s Web presence now includes access to dozens of municipal services that were not previously online.

by / February 23, 2018
Courtesy City of Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids, Mich., has redesigned its website, and in doing so, officials are hopeful that sometime soon the government will never have to talk with its citizens again.

That is unless, of course, the citizens actually want to talk to their government. Basically, in redesigning its website, Grand Rapids has made it so that 240 municipal services that used to require in-person appearances, letters or phone calls can now be done entirely online, at any time of day and from any location. This includes things like starting water service, signing up for refuse removal and paying parking tickets.

Creating a one-stop website — or a digital city hall as those involved with the project have dubbed it — was not easy, said Becky Jo Glover, Grand Rapids’ 311 customer service center manager and the website redesign team lead. In fact, this redesign process took between eight and 10 months, and it involved working across 41 different internal government departments and divisions.

It also involved going out and conducting interviews with the residents who would be using the site, as well as with internal government employees who would also need its functions. This sort of human-centered online presence redesign is part of a larger trend in local governments in which city halls have begun to shift from designing technology that simply satisfied bureaucratic needs, to creating simplified products that entice users, much like those built by the private sector.

Grand Rapids, for example, rewrote all of its website content from scratch to drop formal government phrasing and to adapt a friendlier, conversational tone. It was a major undertaking, one that Glover and the two others on her team — Zac Thiel and Alex Melton — fostered buy-in for by incentivizing citizens with $10 gift cards to local restaurants. They also offered a 5 percent pay increase on top of salary in exchange for public servants spending extra hours each week working on the project.

“Rather than going out and hiring a whole group of people, we used existing staff that met our criteria, and they became our subject matter experts that helped us get the training completed and then also work on all the content, bumper-to-bumper,” Glover said.

This sort of work lead to the website redesign coming in under budget, too. Glover said the city had allocated roughly $625,000 for the project, and that her team had done the work for about $187,000 less than that.

To accomplish the technical side of things, Grand Rapids used the OpenCities content management system. Although they are in a planning stage for the second phase, one that will involve digitizing even more services, the team is happy with the improvements they’ve made thus far.

“The biggest difference in my mind between the old site and the new is on the old site every department acted independently,” Thiel said. “In fact, they all had their own website with its own navigation. You’d go to one department and that’s just where you were. There was nothing tying the whole thing together. With the new site one of our main goals was to present a unified city with a unified voice.”

Although some internal employees were initially resistant to change, the user-centered research broke down those barriers quickly, specifically the sessions in which department heads sat in and watched actual residents struggle to navigate their services. That, Glover said, was one of the most powerful takeaways of the entire process.

“You’re forever changed when you think you’re so good at knowing what your community wants and in reality we are the antithesis,” Glover said. “It’s nobody’s fault. We’re government employees and we know our business, and we do it every day.”

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.