Following the launch of an open data portal earlier this year, Pennsylvania has continued polishing its digital presence with the release of a new version of its website at PA.gov June 16. Now a pilot version, the office of Gov. Tom Wolf announced the commonwealth will seek feedback from the public as the website is improved during the next six to 12 months.
The website launch is a piece of Wolf’s broader vision to build a “Government That Works,” a program with initiatives to increase transparency, “increase efficiency, reduce waste, and eliminate cronyism and corruption.”
The upgraded portal strives to further the high-level goals of state leadership through modern design principles like user-centered Web design and prioritizing popular content so it’s easier for users to navigate. According to Krystal Bonner, digital director at the governor’s office, the old website was failing on that front.
A survey revealed that 60 percent of users claimed they were not able to find what they were looking for on the previous version of the site.
The new site puts services first, as the most frequently accessed services are found beneath a search bar and “trending searches” ticker. Featured articles, blog posts, social media widgets and links to state department websites are among the fare now common in modern government websites.
Developed by NIC partner Pennsylvania Interactive, the new website is also specially designed for mobile use. Two years ago, 27 percent of the site’s users were on mobile devices and today that number has climbed to 35 percent, Bonner said. This figure approaches federal levels, where mobile users comprise about 40 percent of all visitors to federal government websites, according to analytics.usa.gov.
“The old site was launched by the previous administration in 2013 and it is responsive,” Bonner said. “If you open it on your phone, it will scale to your phone’s layout, but it didn’t really do much more than that. There’s not an experience that’s designed specifically for mobile. It’s just a smaller version of the desktop site and it’s difficult to navigate and load.”
Following the lead of the governor’s website redesign last July, Pennsylvania’s new website was designed in WordPress, a deviation from the commonwealth’s traditional use of SharePoint.
“SharePoint is a CMS that has its own benefits, but we really wanted to use open source,” Bonner explained. “There are always challenges when you are trying to change the existing technology and especially in government, but I would say what we learned from that is that just go for it. Just continuing to do the same thing just because it’s what you’ve always done is not a good reason to keep doing it. So, if you want positive change, just stick to your guns and if you have a good team like we do here, you’ll be able to pull it off.”
As the public spends an increasing number of hours each day with their eyes focused on a screen, websites have effectively become the face of government. And the message that the new governor wants to send is that Pennsylvania can be a better government by embracing technology, said the governor’s press secretary Jeffrey Sheridan.
“For a long time we were not leaders in this and even cities in our own state were beating the commonwealth, like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” Sheridan said. “... What we are trying to do is really bring our digital operations into the 21st century and modernizing it so that it is in line with other states so that we’re being a national leader in this.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.