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Cities Narrowly Outpace Counties on Key Digital Metrics, Survey Finds

Now in its third year, the survey from government website developer Vision identified significant digital communication usage from city and county agencies.

by / April 14, 2017

A new survey of local governments confirms their firm embrace of digital communication, a relationship likely to become closer and more informal in the next five years, and highlights differing priorities between the city and county agencies surveyed.

The online survey, What’s Next in Digital Communications for County Governments conducted by El Segundo, Calif.-based Vision, was distributed in December 2016 to 3,696 agencies — and was particularly revealing of where cities and counties are on their digital journeys, how their missions vary, and how their relationships with residents differ, according to Ashley Fruechting, Vision’s senior director of marketing.

The survey had an 11.8 percent response rate, yielded answers from 290 municipalities and 146 counties, and has a 4 percent margin of error.

Cities ranked websites, labeled “the hub in the wheel of digital government” in the survey, higher in importance than counties did — though both types of agencies rated them highly. Ninety percent of counties said their websites were “essential” or “important” to overall strategies for communications and public service, compared with 96 percent of cities.

Email dramatically outranked the website in popularity among counties, in a comparison of highly effective communications channels today versus in five years. Just 24 percent of counties rated their agency’s website as a “highly effective” channel of communication today — but nearly half, or 49 percent, of counties felt that way about email.

“The hypothesis I have just by looking at the data and comparing it, and conversations, is perhaps the services that cities are delivering are just more easily put on the Web,” Fruechting told Government Technology. “Residents are more likely to know the services that are being provided by the cities, so maybe they’re coming more naturally to the website.”

Though they may offer economic development and infrastructure programs, and manage justice and public safety systems, “counties are different,” the survey’s authors wrote.

It was a finding those surveyed confirmed in ranking the topics they thought their residents cared most about. Job opportunities ranked first, but county respondents ranked information on planning and zoning issues second, and emergency notifications third. Municipalities ranked special events information second; and parks and recreation news third.

The reality, Fruechting said, is that “cities provide services that are just closer to home to residents.”

“I think counties have had the challenge of getting [residents] to understand services there, the challenge of getting them to follow them,” she said, describing residents as more likely to identify themselves with their city and follow it on social media.

In the survey, Carver County, Minn., IT Developer Joseph Satre pointed out that counties tend to have more “static content” on social media because they typically don’t offer as many events and promotions.

He told Government Technology that much of the content on his county's website, which was redesigned by Vision in December 2015, is either cyclical or aimed at connecting people to services.

In the survey, counties overall said online communication channels should grow exponentially in importance within five years, at which time 71 percent of county agencies said their website will be their most effective communication channel. And for Carver County, Satre said that's already true.

"In five years, I think it will stay that way," he added. "I think we'll increase what we have available by social media, but I think the website will stay important."

Kevin Tunell, communications director for Yuma County, Ariz., said in the survey that his county's website is like its calling card — one that's increasingly easy to read.

When Yuma County worked with Vision to update its website last year, Tunell said it realized roughly 85 percent of visitors were focusing on just 10 to 15 percent of their content. Its solution was adding links on the mainpage to popular sub-pages — plus an online help center staffed by employees during business hours.

"I have a lot more confidence in the way it was built, that we're reaching out to the citizens ... but also making sure it's a two-way street and residents are able to find things on our website," Tunell told Government Technology.

Other counties also emphasized the role of social media. Sixty percent of those surveyed ranked it second only to the website as the most effective communication channel in five years. Only 28 percent said it was currently their most effective communication channel.

Email was expected to remain important in five years, with more than half the counties surveyed ranking it the third most effective channel of communication.

But the role of press releases — currently considered the second most effective method of communication by 44 percent of those surveyed — didn’t even rate in five years, effectively replaced with engagement platforms, rated by 43 percent of counties.

Fruechting said the absence of releases, coupled with the rise in significance of social media, suggests agencies are seeking more informal communication channels — and that social media and websites may replace the press release as a way to effectively disseminate information.

County and municipal leaders weren’t overly bullish on how well their websites served residents. Fewer than one in 10 said their websites were “outstanding,” while three-quarters of those who responded said their websites were average to good.

And city and county agencies agreed on the three biggest issues confronting their current websites. “Limited citizen engagement” ranked first for both types of agencies, followed by a lack of mobile-ready design, and difficulty of navigation for counties. Municipal agencies reversed the last two, ranking navigation second and design third.

More than 97 percent of county respondents said “yes” when asked if their governments were obligated to keep up with changing technologies.

But the 290 cities that responded also outpaced the 146 responding counties in two other key metrics: their projected annual investment needed to follow technology, and in prioritizing the need to expand citizen engagement.

County tech investment forecasts varied from 0 to 100 percent, with 41 percent of respondents predicting they’d need annual increases ranging from 10 to 19 percent. But overall, “counties forecast slightly lower investment than municipalities,” the survey’s authors wrote.

Counties also lagged more than 10 percentage points behind cities on boosting citizen engagement. Generally, the issue ranked first out of five digital priorities, but municipalities found the issue far more pressing, with 80 percent ranking it at the top compared to 63 percent of counties.

Website upgrades ranked as the No. 2 digital priority, likely signaling their key role in successful engagement strategies, the authors noted — but, Fruechting said, possibly also reflecting that counties may be still thinking through their digital strategy as a whole.

Social media rated as the third most important digital priority, followed by data and analytics work in fourth place, and disaster recovery and continuity in fifth. Fruechting said the low ranking of data and analytics could present an unwitting challenge for agencies.

“I find it interesting that engagement consistently comes up as a goal but at its core, engagement is related to being data-driven,” she said. “I think that if they are going to achieve the goal of engagement, they almost have to start by being data-driven, to understand where they are and how residents are interacting.”

County respondents did rate higher on tracking and analyzing their own website metrics; 66 percent said they do so, with 29 percent doing so monthly or quarterly and 52 percent doing so “sometimes.”

Nearly one-quarter of respondents, or 24 percent, said they never looked at those metrics — but virtually identical segments, or 18 and 19 percent, said they scrutinize those analytics daily or weekly and annually, respectively.

The results, Fruechting said, may reflect “a larger shift” in city and county thinking about serving residents — one in which cities are leading but counties are starting to “fall in line.”

In 2018, survey authors said, agencies will face another likely hurdle: new rules for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website compliance and the increased enforcement of existing guidelines.

City and county officials are aware “that it is a thing,” Fruechting said, but “loosely.”

Nearly all, or 98 percent, of respondents believed Web accessibility would have a “significant impact” on local government by 2020 — but on the county side, 60 percent of agencies said they had “moderate, weak or no knowledge” of federal Web accessibility requirements.

One-third of county officials who responded reported “no knowledge” of the accessibility requirements. Their municipal counterparts had similar answers. Many officials, Fruechting said, will have to change how they think about agency websites and scrutinize content, from links to the captions on videos.

But, she said, if the Department of Justice’s enforcement follows precedent, it may simply consider websites as part of a bigger picture of accessibility, with audits and warnings a possibility.

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.