Since 1996, Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government have released an annual list of the best websites in state and local government. Over the years, our Best of the Web survey has become a widely watched barometer for government Web design excellence and trending technology features.

Plenty has changed since we reported on the first Best of the Web results in our November 1996 issue. In that initial survey, we lauded the Florida Department of Management Services for posting state contract information on its top-ranked Florida Communities Network website. And we congratulated local government winner San Carlos, Calif., for offering downloadable forms that could be completed and faxed to the city.

This year’s winners coped with challenges that weren’t even on the radar 17 years ago. For instance, Tennessee’s tn.gov and Austin’s austintexas.gov incorporate responsive design, allowing them to automatically adapt to smartphones and tablets carried by a rapidly growing number of citizens. In fact, Tennessee officials say nearly 20 percent of traffic to the state portal now comes from mobile devices, which also explains why they adopted a mobile-friendly panel-based design earlier this year.

Another top-ranked site, Alameda County, Calif.’s acgov.org concentrated on connecting with citizens through social networks and engaging developer communities through hackathons. County officials add that they’ve integrated some apps produced by the hackathons into the county website. (Read more about this year’s Best of the Web winners.)

On the other hand, some of the key issues haven’t changed all that much.

Winning sites this year paid close attention to clarity of design and ease of navigation, just like our top finishers did 17 years ago. John Child, webmaster for Utah’s second-ranked state portal in 1996, told us the state focused on getting users from the home page to the information they sought within three mouse clicks. Pioneering sites also were planting the seeds for interactive online services. San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura, for instance, was already planning a regional smart permitting system for local businesses, and the Virginia Department of Transportation website was offering live traffic camera feeds for commuters.

Ultimately one thing comes through loud and clear in our coverage of that first Best of the Web survey: The winners had a passion for using the Web to improve government service. That quality has remained a constant throughout the years — and it’s reflected once again in this year’s winners.

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government Technology,Public 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.