The embattled online home of Palo Alto, Calif., has been transformed into a state-of-the-art website, due in-part to the long-standing dedication of a group of volunteer citizen advisers.

Convened in 2008 to address widespread complaints over the usability of the site, the team consists of various data, design and Web experts from Silicon Valley and other areas. Over a four-year period, the volunteers developed and helped implement more than 70 recommendations for a new site that will officially launch this July.

A beta version of the site is currently online to garner further citizen feedback.

Palo Alto CFO Lalo Perez said when he took over for his predecessor in January 2008, Palo Alto’s newly-redesigned website was fraught with criticism.

“People felt the look and feel was not Palo Alto, the navigation was not as good as it should have been and there were huge complaints about the search,” Perez recalled. He added that a lot of people asked why city staff didn’t reach out to the tech-savvy Silicon Valley community for help.

So after discussing the idea with Frank Benest — Palo Alto’s city manager at the time — Perez sent out a call to residents to help staff improve the website.

He put out ads in local newspapers seeking pro bono assistance and received more than 40 responses. Perez whittled the list down to 20, including some of the website’s harshest critics. A core group of about 12 surfaced from the pool of candidates and the members met monthly to work on the site.

In about a year, the group succeeded in achieving some “quick wins,” Perez said. The city purchased a Google search engine and made the site’s navigation a little more logical to follow. But in 2009, faced with a city budget deficit of approximately $10 million and only one webmaster available to work on the project, Perez had to put further website plans on hiatus.

The group stuck together, however, continuing sporadic meetings. They reconvened regularly again in 2010, when participants hammered out final details on color schemes, branding and more intuitive navigation controls.

Navigation and multimedia were big concerns of the Palo Alto Website Advisory Committee.

“We had a pretty good idea from the statistics as to where people were navigating, but [citizens] were saying there were other ways to reflect that data in how you design and display the home page,” Perez said.

The new homepage features a rotating image marquee, personalization options, improved search capability and user-centered navigation. Quick links to city council documents, business information, press releases and public safety contacts dot the lower portion of the site. Latest news and events are prominent in the middle of the site’s home page.

Civica Software provided all the design work and made some customizations to the out-of-the-box content management system city staff use to update the site. The complete vendor cost of the project was $88,000.

While the site ultimately took around four years to fully build, Perez called the experience rewarding, particularly given how involved and accountable the volunteers were on the project.

“When you do volunteer work, there’s not typically any feedback from the community,” Perez said. “With this, it puts [the volunteers] on the forefront here. They’re a part of the effort. Good, bad or indifferent, they are part of the equation and that’s why they were very committed.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.