Nevada County, Calif., Overhauls Its Website to Engage Citizens in the Ways They Want

County lets residents submit and vote on ideas to improve the website.

by / March 29, 2012
Nevada County, Calif.

Maintaining an online presence that meets the expectations of today’s smartphone-carrying, Facebook-loving public isn’t easy. But Nevada County, Calif., tackled this challenge head-on with a revamped website that lets users find content via guided navigation, content tabs and search — including public documents in the county’s document management system. Users will also get information they’re seeking via pop-ups, rather than journeying through the site.

“It’s no longer a postcard on steroids. It is now behaving more like an application,” said Bruce Gauthier, the county’s information systems analyst.

The county, Gauthier said, hopes to deliver 80 percent of desired content to users from its home page, and is laying the groundwork for an online presence that will let users receive personalized information on the site, as well as via social networks and on mobile devices.

One Platform

The overhaul of Nevada County’s near-decade-old website was driven by an overall strategy to consolidate multiple back-end management systems onto a single content management platform, said county CIO Stephen Monaghan. Previously, he said, the county’s document, online content, business process and other management systems were different products, which led to a piecemeal approach in developing solutions for county departments and delivering content to the public.

“That’s the way everybody used to do it,” said Monaghan. But now more mature enterprise content management solutions are available that can help the county develop solutions more easily and cost-effectively. The county began moving its various back-end systems to Microsoft SharePoint two years ago, which he said saves around 20 percent annually on licensing and software alone.

The move allowed the county to automate and streamline processes, making it easier for departments to post content online.

“They don’t have the work bandwidth to be doing things twice,” Monaghan said, adding that with all of the content on the same platform, it will now be as simple as checking a box to make the content available and searchable to the public.

Targeting Content

The underlying tagging and organization of content is important because it will also help the county provide new modernized features, such as targeted content for individuals who set up profiles and a mobile site. For the most part, the transition was done with existing staff, but Gauthier said the county worked with a taxonomy expert for two days because there was no standard system of categorization that applied to Nevada County.

A mobile app platform, called Mobile Entrée, helped the county develop an interface that smartphone users are familiar with. “You could swear while you’re using it that it’s a mobile app, but it isn’t — it’s a Web connection,” Gauthier said. “And it behaves like an application, which for all intents and purposes is what we’re trying to do with our traditional website as well — let it behave more like an app. You click on things, you get your answers immediately, you’re not drilling down in the traditional way.”

In late summer, the county expects to let interested parties set up profiles to receive personalized content based on information they share on their profile.

“We can allow people to log onto the site, establish an account and have particular data that they want to subscribe to either be delivered to a miniature site or [sent] via email, Twitter or what have you,” said Gauthier.

Site users will be able to subscribe to information that’s relevant to their locale, for instance, or their relationship with the county. Affiliates, such as contractors or incorporated cities, might be presented different information than a resident or a visitor. Departments also will be able to set up forums and wikis where citizens can give input on county projects, and notifications to participate in county activities can be targeted to interested subscribers.

“The next phase, phase two, is really about civic engagement,” said Monaghan, “and doing that process automation out to the citizens where they can actually help solve community problems online and participate with county staff on things like that.”

Future Functionality

The new platform provided the tools to develop a modern website, but to ensure that the site would meet county government and citizens’ needs, Monaghan presented the idea to department heads at an annual workshop and kept them abreast of plans during monthly meetings, continually gathering feedback on what they wanted. He also got feedback from the county board of supervisors and county employees, eventually creating a document detailing the vision for the new site.

To get public input, the county prominently posted a link on its old website asking visitors for their opinions and directing them to a crowdsourcing page where people could see the vision document, propose ideas and vote on them.

With the technology and a solid plan in place, Information Services began working with departments to migrate content to the new site. Information Services set up two training sessions for content creators who would be responsible for migrating the data and followed up with additional workshops.

Hettie Malech, senior office assistant in the Department of Social Services, said the training sessions and workshops were helpful and that the new platform is easy to use.

“The editing window looks very much like Word,” Gauthier said. The content is at the bottom of the window, he said, and the tagging is done at the top. “You just fill it out.”

He said the county didn’t automate the content migration, instead taking the opportunity to clean house — and audits completed beforehand revealed thousands of pages of dead content on the old site.

“We want them to physically lay hands and eyes on their content from the old site,” said Gauthier.

The new system offers tools to help the county monitor information and remove irrelevant or inaccurate content.  “If you have an event that only lasts a week, you can flag it and take it away in a week,” Malech said. “I think it’s going to put a better picture out there in the long run.”