Utah; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Fairfax County, Va., took top honors in the 2009 Best of the Web awards competition, the Center for Digital Government announced Tuesday, Sept. 1. The awards are a joint project of Government Technology and the Center for Digital Government.
The annual Best of the Web awards rank state, county and city portals and are judged by a panel of experts on a wide range of categories, including site accessibility, innovation, cost-savings, ease of use and exceptional service to public. Finalists will collect their awards on Sept. 18 in Hollywood, Calif. The award winners were grouped into state, city and county categories. They finished as follows:
Given that the year's economic downswing forced some state and local governments to shorten workweeks and reduce staff, a repackaging of online government services was especially important to governments that competed in 2009.
A common thread among the finalists was prominent links on the home page to e-government services and their high placement in search engines. Enabling citizens to pay a department of motor vehicles bill or water bill without the trouble of sleuthing for the individual agency's Web page also was a key this year. Including links on the home page to social networking platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, appeared to be a common goal of the finalists. Culture-savvy Web design teams also showcased podcasts, YouTube videos and RSS feeds.
Nearly all portals based their changes on citizen preferences derived from systematically collected data. Here's a look at the 2009 winners and what propelled them to honors on the red carpet.
While numerous portals aimed to make it easier for citizens to find relevant information, Utah gave the strategy a twist. Utah.gov uses GeoIP technology, which identifies a user's physical location by his or her IP address. This information triggers a display of services located nearby. GIS supplies the data for each IP address that accesses the portal. Usable online services are particularly important in Utah because the state switched to a four-day workweek in the summer of 2008. Citizens indicated approval of this schedule, but only with strong online services, said state CIO Steve Fletcher.
"It was all trying to get as many services online as we could because we were not accessible so much on Friday anymore," Fletcher explained.
He said the portal now facilitates approximately 900 agency applications. It's difficult to miss the icon links for these various services as they rotate across the top of the page. Fletcher's team reprioritized the ranking of the various forms that citizens can access on the Web. Fletcher also considered the portal's multimedia section a major achievement.
Crowd-pleasing applications, like webcams showing marine life at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, helped Virginia Beach stand out among the competition. Technically the aquarium has its own URL for marketing purposes, but the Virginia Beach Communications and Information Technology Department develops and maintains the site in conjunction with the overall city portal. They share the same content management system, as does another "partner site" called Yesvirginiabeach.com, which provides relevant information to businesses that are considering a move to the area.
In all, seven partner sites are connected in this manner with the city's portal, which links to all of them. "That helps users find information without having to navigate seven partner sites," said Kevin Fairley, multimedia services coordinator for Virginia Beach.
He partially credits the municipality's win to the site's statistically prioritized home page links. By glancing at the site's upper left corner, users can quickly find links for reporting potholes, applying for building permits and paying for dog and cat licenses. Fairley's team used popular search analytics and citizen feedback to rank placement of items in the search engine.
One might assume Fairfax County didn't spend much time on its site's appearance because it's a minimalist design with a lot of white space. But the county actually put considerable resources on redesigning its appearance, said Gregory Scott, director of e-government for the Fairfax County Department of Information Technology.
"The new look and feel of our site was based on public input. It's not like developers and engineers sat up here and said, 'This is the way the site should look,'" Scott said.
His agency demonstrated various prototypes by posting PDF documents on the portal. Users were able to click on links to different pages, which created a true user experience within the PDF. The county used moderated discussion software to glean feedback from citizens, and the strategy also involved focus groups with various interest groups, like local businesses.
"We didn't want to go out with the new site and have it be a total shock to our constituents. That could create a lot of chaos," Scott said.
Prominent access to the county's social networking activity also was a priority. Gregory said time spent on Twitter yielded far more interest from citizens than MySpace. For example, an employee tweeted an Amber Alert that went to 300 Twitter followers. Within an hour, the tweet spread to roughly 3,000 Twitter users and the girl was found shortly after. "We don't know if it was due to what we were doing on Twitter, but it was amazing to see how that tweet grew from 300 to over 3,000," Scott said.
Fairfax County also used moderated discussion software to solicit citizen feedback on what to cut and what to keep in the budget. County staff read the responses each day and posted responses every few days; they incorporated several of the suggestions into the budget.