The state of Hawaii, the city of Washington, D.C., and Oakland County, Mich., are home to the best government websites in the nation. These sites topped the 2014 Best of the Web awards, a joint project of Government Technology and e.Republic's Center for Digital Government, which highlights the public sector's evolving capabilities on the Web. Winners were announced Oct. 7.
In three categories – state, city and county – nearly 300 government websites were judged on their innovative qualities, usefulness, and efficiency and economy. A panel comprising last year’s winners, former government officials and executives from the Center for Digital Government selected websites that tried new things, while remaining functional. See below what made the winners win and who placed in the top 10 for each category.
Through executive and legislative support, Hawaii made big changes to its Web portal quickly, transforming into a cloud-based, open-source, mobile-first, gamified resource. Judges were impressed by the portal’s “elegant and beautiful design,” ease of navigation and a suite of functionality that set it apart from the crowd.
Gamified elements like leaderboards and badges, along with transaction history through My Hawaii gives users a personalized experience, and are driving up online service adoption.
Judges said information on the site was easy to find, either through manual scanning, traditional search or a trending services sorting function.
Gamification is a trend in user interface design generally, but somewhat unconventional in government websites. Hawaii's adoption of the technique was not seen as much of a risk, said state chief information officer Keone Kali.
“The risk here was mostly perception because of the name,” he said. “The concept of applying game-design thinking to other applications is essentially taking advantage of proven best practice models to make resources more engaging. We are taking citizen engagement and user experience seriously. This is paying off with a measurable 20 percent increase in adoption over one year.”
Best of the Web in Years Past
Curious about how have government portals changed over the past 10 years? Take a look at our timeline of the Best of the Web competition from 2004 through 2013.
Kali said his organization will continue to upgrade the state Web portal with the aim of providing easier access to information and better transparency. “We are extremely honored and proud of our team,” Kali said. “This recognition strengthens our resolve in taking our Internet presence and application of citizen-facing services to the next level. Hawaii is well on its way to being a digital government.”
The District of Columbia’s online portal offers citizens access to more than 250 Web applications and 175 online forms. A new front page launched this year migrated 22 agency websites to the portal’s Drupal content management system.
Using best practices like responsive design, social media integration, a simple interface and analytics-enabled search functionality, judges saw that Washington, D.C., got the basics right.
The website makes use GIS and open data, offering nearly 500 data sets through the city’s open data portal. A “listen” button that allows vision-impaired users to hear the website provides an extra layer of accessibility to state services.
The dc.gov portal received 29 million visits in 2013, a 7 percent increase over the previous year's traffic.
Judges selected OakGov.com as the first-place winner in the county government category for its unique approach to mobility, attractive and simple interface, and the black-and-white cost savings it enables. Online transactions conducted through the website generated more than $13.8 million, and led to more than $2.8 million in net taxpayer savings and $1.3 million in transaction savings, according to the county.
CIO Phil Bertolini said Oakland County's Web presence has reduce the need for county residents to call or stand at a counter to get the service they need. “This past year, we had almost 4 million visitors [to the site] and they viewed over 11 million pages,” Bertolini said. “They downloaded over 860,000 documents.”
When governments talk about serving an increasingly mobile user base, the term "responsive design" usually comes up. Responsive design is popular because it’s an elegant solution to the challenge of serving content to a wide range of devices, from desktops to smartphones. But Bertolini took a different – and he says better – approach.
“We came up with templates for the different versions of mobile and then we use a program that knows what kind of device is coming into the website and it serves up content accordingly,” he said. “What worried me about [responsive design] is it starts stacking your data. It just becomes one big long string on a phone. I wanted certain things be in certain spots and make sure users were able to get what they needed right on that front screen, because if you look at a smartphone, sometimes when you use responsive design, you have to scroll quite a bit to get what you want.”
It’s important to accommodate mobile users, Bertolini said, because that’s the trend in computing. “We have complete mobility built in to the 23,000 pages of content, which I think is a bit unique,” he said. “I know some people may have portions of their websites mobile, but ours is mobile throughout. And what’s good about that is 30 percent of our traffic now is through mobile devices.”
OakGov.com is designed to get users to information or services they need within two or three clicks. It's also designed to provide relevant content without overwhelming visitors.
“We created a front page that wasn’t real busy,” Bertolini said. “It had enough to get you where you needed to go, but it wasn’t a place to just dump all your data, and I know you’ve seen those sites in the past.”
Deciding which data to display is a matter of looking at the facts, Bertolini said. “It’s amazing when you start working with departments what they think should be on the front page or what the business users think should be on the front page,” he said. “And then you find out what people are really searching for.”
OakGov.com draws from a fully distributed content management system, which enables departments to control their data, and ensures users are always getting a uniform experience with current information. The county has 170 content managers, and it works well that way, because they know their content better than IT does, Bertolini said.
“The investment that we’ve made over the years in keeping our technology current and trying to push that barrier on innovation is paying off and to be recognized as the No. 1 county website in the country is pretty darn important to us," Bertolini said. "I went down and [our staff] and you can see it on their faces – all that work and all that sweat to get this to where it was, because it wasn’t easy. They’re very proud of it and I’m very proud of them.”
View our Best of the Web Winner and Finalist Breakdown on page 2.
Steve Towns, Noelle Knell, Elaine Pittman and Jessica Mulholland contributed to this story.