Aside from recognizing the best websites in government, the Center for Digital Government’s annual Best of the Web awards also provide the world a benchmark of how well state and local governments in the U.S. are doing their job. For each government website using modern design principles, there’s an organization behind it that’s serving its citizens more effectively, efficiently and conveniently than it did the year prior. This year’s winners are a reflection of progress in government service delivery.

The first place winners in their respective categories for 2015 are the city of Independence, Mo., Sacramento County, Calif., and the state of Arkansas. This year, 33 state and local government websites were recognized — and these winners showcase a few common themes.

The best government websites tend to use simple, high-image, low-text designs; prioritize accessibility and mobility; prominently feature a search function; and start with a design philosophy that puts the user first. These elements have long been cornerstones of good design. The fact that Arkansas.gov put a search box front and center, that Independence's portal used a mobile-first design framework or that every departmental page on saccounty.net takes on a common look are not so much trends as they are a grander recognition by government that the design world has certain things figured out — and that success on the Web is simply a matter of following standards, using the tools that are available and minding their businesses.

Arkansas.gov

Whatever the department, the aim of government is serving its citizens. Where this year’s winning websites succeed is largely a function of their ability to get out of the way when they’re not needed and appear when they are, like an affable shop clerk.

The Independence website, which launched in February of this year after 12 months of development by a three-man design team (including the CIO), is a great example of providing the user with enough information to easily find anything they need, while never overwhelming him with more information than he wants.

Each area on the website's front page provides the user just enough information to decide where he wants to branch off to next. A menu bar is always present at the top of the page, but small enough that it can be easily ignored. Small menus under the search bar quickly expand and disappear as needed, also without taking too much screen space. A "trending now" bar pulls city resources out from obscurity and onto the front page. A City Stat widget shares with users miscellaneous facts about the city’s online services like, “410 customers paid their utilities bill online yesterday.”

The front page, which uses bright colors and a flat look, is a cross-section of the entire organization that gives the user a dozen different ways to find something interesting or relevant.

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“Of course, you need to refresh your website every four or so years,” said Mark Baumann, IT director for Independence. “But this is part of an ongoing effort here at the city to implement advanced technologies that increase our operational efficiencies, but also toward enhancing citizen engagement. That’s the driving force behind this website, this new city council goal on technology.”

The city wanted to avoid the old style of text-heavy government websites in which the user is expected to navigate a hierarchy of businesses and services, Baumann said. And it took the typical Internet user’s habits into account too, he said.

“We didn’t want it to look like your typical government website where you try to cram everything in on one view,” he said. “We wanted to make use of scrolling. People nowadays, whether they’re on a mobile device or if they’re sitting on their computer with a mouse, they’re used to scrolling. We felt it was OK for us to have a long home webpage.”

The most important thing for any website is that it’s easy to use, and Independence’s website is easy to use on any device, thanks to the design team’s use of the Bootstrap framework and an intuitive design. A single sign-on simplifies things for users accessing more than one service across the city. And an always-present, but easily ignorable, “Get Help” button serves as a safety net to ensure that even the least technical user can always find what he is looking for.

Nothing spoils the image of fine redwood veneer like poking through and finding a hodgepodge of particle board and plywood on the other side. Many government websites revamp their main portal only to leave its dozens of agency websites untouched. An intuitive portal goes a long way toward getting the user where he needs to go, but the best government websites finish the job, as Sacramento County has done by integrating all of its content into the same look and feel as the main page of the website.

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Judges were impressed by an elegant design that managed to integrate many features without making the website feel cramped. A text-only button gives mobile users or users with slow connections a toggle switch for the website’s many graphics and images. A link on the front page provides quick access to an index of county data sets. A SacCounty News Widget provides users a window to nearly 200 articles published by the Public Information Office each year. And behind the scenes, county staff use a single Web content management system.

The Sacramento County website design is similar to that of Independence in that it’s designed with the user’s needs in mind. County CIO Rami Zakaria recalled a change in the website’s direction starting in 2011 when he met with the newly hired county CEO. The makings of a great website were there, he said — it just needed a little love.

“At the time, he felt our website was not hard-hitting, not dynamic, did not convey energy, or did not convey what we were hoping to be or how to present our county,” Zakaria said. “We wanted the website that was rich in graphics, rich in pictures. The functionality was there. We wanted to expand our online services and so on, so we set out to do that. So if you look at 2011 and prior, our website was very text-heavy. Use of pictures and graphics was really minimized.”

Making a great website requires a great design team, Zakaria said, but that’s a given. The other thing a government needs for a great website is an organization that can collaborate and work as one, he said.

“Having the county function as one county and the departments be all on the same page with the same goal,” Zakaria said. “One of the things we struggled with in the past was that every department wanted to do things their own way, and if you went to our website and you went to the departments, they looked different. If you go to any department’s websites, you’ll see common look and feel, you’ll see a common approach to searching for content and for finding content.”

This iteration of the Sacramento County website launched in August 2014 after about three months of development by an internal six-person team, not including the CIO. Future plans for updates to the website include a single sign-on, Zakaria said, and a dashboard that gives users a broad overview of a single account with the county.

“We’re really proud of the website,” Zakaria said. “For us, it’s our busiest public counter. Ten years ago, if you wanted to do business with the county, you came in to pay your taxes at the county office, or you go to the county clerk recorder for getting documents and so on. What we’re trying to do is really make it our 24/7 public counter. You could do anything on our website you can do in office, with very few exceptions.”

Mobility is increasingly important for Web users, and that’s why Arkansas.gov got a mobile redesign in May 2013. The website has seen many improvements and updates since then, including the launch of several supplementary mobile apps for Android, iOS and Apple Watch, like Gov2Go, a state-centric personal assistant that helps users track deadlines, get reminders and ask questions.

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The state realized that about 45 percent of its website’s users were mobile, said Arkansas chief technology officer Mark Myers, and since then, the state’s outreach strategy has trended more heavily in that direction.

Making Web content device-agnostic and easily accessible for users is as simple as finding good designers who know to use comprehensive and well-supported front-end frameworks like Pure, Bootstrap or Foundation. The broader view, Myers said, is more involved.

“We’re bringing all the different agencies together, so it’s not just about design standards, it’s about making sure that the services that people want are optimized,” Myers said. “And how to do that? You’ve got to talk to the business owners, the individual agencies.”

Arkansas’ website is developed by NIC. Choosing which services to bring forward on the website, or which new apps to create, is a process that starts by meeting with the state’s various departments through an NIC board, Myers explained.

“The board is made up of sector agencies and a handful of private-sector folks, and we talk about what is the functionality we would like to have, what are the things that make sense, and we talk about the strategy going forward, what’s the strategic plan?” Myers said. “Then, NIC and designers work together on how to implement that plan, so it’s a partnership between both the public and private sectors.”

This year’s first place award is Arkansas’ 10th consecutive year being recognized in Best of the Web. In 2015, Arkansas.gov is the state website that did everything right. It’s user-centric, all the content has been integrated into a common look and feel, the front page takes a non-invasive cross-section approach to data presentation, the state’s social media presence is heavily featured, the search tool allows users to filter results by agency, person, service, jobs or other pages, and users who want even more can download an app that will personalize their relationship with the state.

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This year’s class of winning websites shows that government is embracing the fact that it can’t do everything. One of the biggest coups of technology’s general advancement over the past decade is that sophisticated technologies are easily and quickly adaptable. Tools that would have cost millions to develop just 10 years ago can be had today with a bit of expertise and knowing where to download the right open-source tools. Government is spending less time fighting with custom tools and sticking to its job, which is serving the people.

Also worth mentioning is the citizen tax dollars that government saves through technology-enabled government efficiencies and innovations.

The city of Boulder, Colo., for instance, saved an estimated $100,000 in system costs and $70,000 annually through the use of open-source software for the deployment of its Elasticsearch search engine. Indiana, an NIC partner, processed more than 9.6 transactions, almost 3 million of those within the department of motor vehicles, generating $1.51 billion in gross revenue and saving the state $20.1 million. Independence, Mo., saves $38 million in annual costs because 30 percent of its citizen transactions happen online. Sacramento’s Open Data Portal is said to save the county more than $100,000 in labor costs that would have otherwise been required. The state of Utah processed 1.4 million drivers' licenses online last year, contributing to a total of $46 million saved over the past five years through online transactions. Arkansas had 1.2 million visitors last year, resutling in transactions that saved the state $309 million.

Visit page two of our story for the Best of the Web winner and finalist breakdown, and page three for winners of the Digital Government Achievement Awards.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their spastic dog. He's obsessed with pizza and bread. Bill Watterson is his hero. He's learning to play chess. He thrives on criticism and wants to hear what you think of his reporting: cwood@govtech.com.

Steve Towns, Editor
Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor
Noelle Knell  |  Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

Jessica Mulholland  |  Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her passion for photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com@jbronwen on Twitter and on Google+.