The public sector is adopting the same modern technologies and nimble operations used by its private industry counterparts. This is reflected in patches throughout the government technology space, but the trend is most apparent when surveying government websites, each of which put their agencies’ offerings on display like so many stalls at an open-air bazaar.
And this year, the 20th anniversary of the Center for Digital Government’s* Best of the Web Awards, announced Sept. 1, is a recognition of that commitment to colorful technological innovation and the improvements in service delivery that come along with it.
The leaders who oversaw development of this year’s best government websites shared in common a simple vision of user-centric content, a desire to iterate and collaborate more quickly than in years past, and to watch the market for the latest trends and standards. Making a successful website is as easy as asking yourself what the user might need, explained Rob Stradling, director of the Office of Information Technology in Baltimore County, Md.
Baltimore County’s website, which took first place in the county government category this year, looks as simple and straightforward as the philosophy that guided its development. With a prominent search box, social media integration, adjustable font size functionality, and boxes for county services placed front-and-center, Baltimore County showed that government websites don’t need to be flashy — the great ones focus on fundamentals.
For Baltimore County, it's about making the site usable and accessible by everyone. "Anyone who has any kind of special need, we try to accommodate. And this may be the only time the constituent is actually interfacing with their government, so we want to make this the easiest experience for them," he added. "And one of the things in Baltimore County we do is make sure it’s the right cost — something the taxpayer can afford.”
Behind the red, white and gray color scheme is a development team that uses not only modern technologies, but also modern work practices, Stradling said. Before 2014, they used a traditional “Waterfall” development cycle, but have since traded that in for a more iterative workflow that allows for prototyping and design that can quickly bring to life new ideas that make things easier for the user.
“One of the other big areas is ‘no wrong door,’” Stradling said. “When somebody comes to us, I do not want to send them all over the place looking for service. However they get to us … I want to be able to get them their service. We use a very active Google-based tool that we’re able to use as both predictive and analytical tools; we have to drive traffic and that’s something we pay a lot of attention to. We’re constantly looking at how people use us and we can fine-tune that and get them as fast as they can through navigation so they can get their service.”
In Maryland, whose portal won first place at the state level, CIO David Garcia, also the secretary of information technology, said making a good website is simply a matter of choosing the right partners and trusting your staff to do their job. In Maryland’s case, Garcia said, the partner was NIC, its talented staff made his job easy, and executive support from Gov. Larry Hogan enabled IT to jet forward in the state.
“I wanted to see something that was aesthetically pleasing, something that our residents and citizens can go to and be proud of, and see something that looks fresh and modern and something that you want to use,” said Garcia. “When I think of government, I don’t think of them being fresh and nimble, so I wanted something that was easy to use and had that fresh feel to it.”
Maryland isn’t alone at the top. Trailed closely this year by Utah, then Mississippi, Texas, Indiana and Nebraska, plenty of state governments are shaking the Luddite image government has earned over the years. Part of development is keeping an eye on what else is out there, Garcia said, and pointed to Utah, Oregon and Arkansas as among the most beautiful state government websites. But in Maryland’s case, keeping pace with today’s standards meant tighter collaboration.
“If anything, it’s become more collaborative,” said Garcia. “Coming into state government, I came in from industry, so I really stretched our hands out of the department to embrace the vendor community a little closer and signal the direction that we’re heading as a state, and keep them apprised of where we’re going so our vendors can respond more nimbly to our requests. … We’re always looking at how we can increase our customer service. The Web interface is a big part of that.”
At the city level, judges were impressed by Denvergov.org, which took first place for its dedication to service delivery. A clean interface and common visual aesthetic across a government website is always a welcome sight, but Denver’s emphasis on connecting locals with services, facilities and information pertaining to their immediate surroundings was what solidified the win.
Denver’s Pocketgov portal gives users personalized access to local notications like street sweeping alerts, upcoming events and property data. More than 200 data sets, 68 city services, and the GoDenver trip planner allow citizens access to their government’s inner workings as they move through their lives, while a mobile app extends accessibility to a wider audience.
Denvergov.org’s design is so simple that it allows the user to find what he or she is looking for and focus on the content.
Visit page two of our story for the Best of the Web winner and finalist breakdown.
*The Center for Digital Government is owned by e.Republic Inc., which also is the parent company of Government Technology magazine and Govtech.com.