Texas officially launched its new Web portal, Texas.gov, on Tuesday, June 8, after a brief soft launch. The site's design is strikingly different than the state's previous Web portal, TexasOnline. New features include lots of white space, plain columns of data and a large search field at the top-center of the homepage.
As state Web portals evolve, they typically feature new e-government services, more intuitive navigation and links to agency social networking pages.
While the new Texas.gov certainly includes those features, it also introduced new services for state and local agencies. Chief among those is a free content management system (CMS) delivered through software as a service (SaaS). The site also introduced a crowdsourcing platform enabling citizens to share ideas about the direction of government.
The new portal, like the old TexasOnline, is "self-funded" by transaction fees on various electronic services, so it requires no money from the state. It was created by Kansas-based NIC, which in 2009 won a seven-year contract to operate the Texas state government portal. The Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) said that while TexasOnline.com had been an effective tool for the past decade, it views the new Texas.gov as simply an improvement.
The portal lets the DIR offer free Web hosting services to Texas local governments. Under this arrangement, agencies manage the content on their portals through the same CMS that the DIR uses to support Texas.gov. The local agencies' portal data is stored on the DIR's servers, which are maintained by the department's IT workers. The service is free for up to 100 GB of content. If a local government's site exceeds that storage amount, it pays an incremental cost. The service could be a welcome opportunity for local governments that are short on funds and IT staff, said state CIO Karen Robinson, who serves as executive director of the DIR.
"This should be especially useful to smaller agencies that don't have the resources to provide up-to-date websites," Robinson said.
State legislation allowed the DIR to provide free CMS functionality to local agencies. The DIR can afford to offer the service without charging by treating it as a shared service, as it's developed once and then distributed to various entities.
The costs of managing Texas.gov and developing new features are covered by transaction fees attached to electronic services provided by the portal. The arrangement is similar to the self-funding model used for TexasOnline - which contributed nearly $70 million to the state's general fund over the past decade - although revenue calculation is simpler under the new portal contract, according to Douglas Holt, deputy executive director of the DIR.
NIC had operated TexasOnline since May 2009, after acquiring management of the site from original contractor BearingPoint, which filed for bankruptcy protection in last February.
Texas officials announced a new portal contract with NIC in August 2009, which gives the state about half the revenue generated by the portal after expenses. The new contract is expected produce more than $183 million for the state's general fund over its seven-year term. At the time, state officials also said the new contract would put greater focus on transformational Web initiatives.
As a way of empowering citizens to engage the state with their ideas, Texas.gov features a collaboration tool from third-party vendor Get Satisfaction, which offers citizens a platform for sharing their ideas with other citizens.
"It engages Texans more in their government process. It's a trend that's happening throughout the country," said Janet Gilmore, assistant director of e-government services for the DIR. "We wanted to use that and see if we could make government more transparent and accessible."
Links to agency activity on social networking were placed prominently on Texas.gov as well. Between crowdsourcing and social networking activity, the state hopes to foster new interest among citizens in collaborating on government matters through Web 2.0 devices.
Making a Web portal easier to navigate is an ongoing concern for most organizations. One weakness of TexasOnline was that information was placed in an unintuitive way, said Gilmore. She promised Texas.gov wouldn't have that problem.
"It's been designed purposely to have a search bar very prominently featured," Gilmore said. "It's a new search tool based on a Google search. It can find anything within the portal purview very easily, based on your keyword search."
The DIR's efforts to make navigation easier go beyond improved search capabilities. The site's creative team assembled groupings of goals that citizens typically visit a portal to fulfill. Each of those groupings appears under one of four words - "Do," Discover," "Connect" and "Ask." With Texas.gov offering so many services and points of data, the DIR expects these classifications to be a less overwhelming way for users to explore those features.
The DIR's use of white space also factored into its navigation strategy, according to Marcus Cooper, director of communications for the DIR. "The use of white space helps us more effectively direct the user's eye to and through the key navigation areas," Cooper said. "It frames and balances the navigation area titles, icons and links; and it's easier on the eyes with no harsh lines, colors or edges to distract the user."
"Texas.gov also incorporated Web 2.0 design elements including lighter, open fonts, more space between list items and more contrast for on-screen reading/scanning."
Central App Repository
A goal to which governments have long aspired is creating a central location for listing and hosting the various applications in agencies. The problem is that the follow-through of inventorying what's available is difficult to orchestrate, according to Gilmore. By 2011, the DIR hopes to overcome that challenge and host such a central repository on Texas.gov. For example, many of the state's 145 agencies have their own applications for enabling citizens to register for services. For the central repository, the DIR will choose one and make it available via Texas.gov to agencies without a registration application.
"We're going to put one out there that's going to be common in nature instead of everybody having to develop and maintain one with different hardware specs," Holt said.
Gilmore said the DIR was still devising a project management strategy that might make cataloging all of the state's applications manageable.