Running an effective government website in 2016 means using modern technologies and design principles — things like putting the user first, integrating tightly with social media and making things simple — but it also means aligning priorities with that of IT’s customer base. That’s what Baltimore County is doing and why it placed first in the Best of the Web’s county category. Government Technology caught up with Rob Stradling, director of the Baltimore County Office of Information Technology, to find out what sets great government websites apart from merely good ones.
1. What does a website represent for county government in 2016?
I think it’s [the citizen’s] first experience in the government world, and it gives them the ability to self-service, which is what everybody wants to be able to do. Our website to us is our main presence. Most folks aren’t going to want to come down to our county seat to do business and find out information. We’ve tried to create a very responsive platform that allows any device to deliver the information citizens need and lets them quickly search through our predictive analytics, which we use to see where people might want to go and to get them the services they need quickly and easily.
2. What are your overall philosophies and strategies for developing an effective website?
Ease of use — I want to get people quickly to what they need. I want it to be very responsive and able to be used by any device quickly. I want to be able to get them whatever government services they need. The other piece is accessibility. I want to make sure that all folks will be able to access our website.
3. Does data play an important role in your Web strategy?
Absolutely. We have the one side — serving up the data so they can actually self-service, finding the service they need. But as far as open and transparent data, to be able to mine it and use it for whatever activity they need, it’s very important for us. Whether it’s going to be from our open data sets or our GIS-based applications, such as My Neighborhood, in whatever flavor the customer would like.
We also have a strong social media presence. Our website is a portal into our social media, so to us, they’re two different opportunities. I see my Web portal as an opportunity to get people into services, and then we can push folks into the engagement piece, whether it’s in our social media or our open data portals.
4. How did you transition from a traditional development cycle to the use of agile?
At first we had to adapt internally. We had to be able to demonstrate that this was faster to market and that it gave us some chances to be creative and unique as needed for the customers too. We have 24 agencies that we service through our Web offering and they all have different needs. So we’re trying to make sure we can do those, but also keep our staff numbers at the appropriate level.
We have been very successful with agile. We recently have taken ownership of the Baltimore County Libraries website. We came in and helped them do some things they’ve been trying to do for years. They were more of a static Web page with just information, and we wanted to do book checkout and a mobile app. Our staff is very talented, so it’s really a win-win. Our government and our libraries used to be separate, but now we work together as a partnership. They were on basically a mom-and-pop content management system that was very inflexible, and that gave us the ability to build something for them quickly.