The Best Government Websites for 2014
Our annual Best of the Web contest ranks these 32 state and local websites as leaders in digital information and services.
In three categories – state, city and county – nearly 300 government websites were judged on their innovative qualities, usefulness, and efficiency and economy. A panel comprising last year’s winners, former government officials and executives from the Center for Digital Government selected websites that tried new things, while remaining functional. See below what made the winners win and who placed in the top 10 for each category.
State – HawaiiThrough executive and legislative support, Hawaii made big changes to its Web portal quickly, transforming into a cloud-based, open-source, mobile-first, gamified resource. Judges were impressed by the portal’s “elegant and beautiful design,” ease of navigation and a suite of functionality that set it apart from the crowd.
Gamified elements like leaderboards and badges, along with transaction history through My Hawaii gives users a personalized experience, and are driving up online service adoption.
Judges said information on the site was easy to find, either through manual scanning, traditional search or a trending services sorting function.
Gamification is a trend in user interface design generally, but somewhat unconventional in government websites. Hawaii's adoption of the technique was not seen as much of a risk, said state chief information officer Keone Kali.
“The risk here was mostly perception because of the name,” he said. “The concept of applying game-design thinking to other applications is essentially taking advantage of proven best practice models to make resources more engaging. We are taking citizen engagement and user experience seriously. This is paying off with a measurable 20 percent increase in adoption over one year.”
Best of the Web in Years PastCurious about how have government portals changed over the past 10 years? Take a look at our timeline of the Best of the Web competition from 2004 through 2013.
City - Washington D.C.The District of Columbia’s online portal offers citizens access to more than 250 Web applications and 175 online forms. A new front page launched this year migrated 22 agency websites to the portal’s Drupal content management system.
Using best practices like responsive design, social media integration, a simple interface and analytics-enabled search functionality, judges saw that Washington, D.C., got the basics right.
The website makes use GIS and open data, offering nearly 500 data sets through the city’s open data portal. A “listen” button that allows vision-impaired users to hear the website provides an extra layer of accessibility to state services.
The dc.gov portal received 29 million visits in 2013, a 7 percent increase over the previous year's traffic.
County - Oakland County, Mich.Judges selected OakGov.com as the first-place winner in the county government category for its unique approach to mobility, attractive and simple interface, and the black-and-white cost savings it enables. Online transactions conducted through the website generated more than $13.8 million, and led to more than $2.8 million in net taxpayer savings and $1.3 million in transaction savings, according to the county.
CIO Phil Bertolini said Oakland County's Web presence has reduce the need for county residents to call or stand at a counter to get the service they need. “This past year, we had almost 4 million visitors [to the site] and they viewed over 11 million pages,” Bertolini said. “They downloaded over 860,000 documents.”
When governments talk about serving an increasingly mobile user base, the term "responsive design" usually comes up. Responsive design is popular because it’s an elegant solution to the challenge of serving content to a wide range of devices, from desktops to smartphones. But Bertolini took a different – and he says better – approach.
“We came up with templates for the different versions of mobile and then we use a program that knows what kind of device is coming into the website and it serves up content accordingly,” he said. “What worried me about [responsive design] is it starts stacking your data. It just becomes one big long string on a phone. I wanted certain things be in certain spots and make sure users were able to get what they needed right on that front screen, because if you look at a smartphone, sometimes when you use responsive design, you have to scroll quite a bit to get what you want.”
It’s important to accommodate mobile users, Bertolini said, because that’s the trend in computing. “We have complete mobility built in to the 23,000 pages of content, which I think is a bit unique,” he said. “I know some people may have portions of their websites mobile, but ours is mobile throughout. And what’s good about that is 30 percent of our traffic now is through mobile devices.”
OakGov.com is designed to get users to information or services they need within two or three clicks. It's also designed to provide relevant content without overwhelming visitors.
“We created a front page that wasn’t real busy,” Bertolini said. “It had enough to get you where you needed to go, but it wasn’t a place to just dump all your data, and I know you’ve seen those sites in the past.”
Deciding which data to display is a matter of looking at the facts, Bertolini said. “It’s amazing when you start working with departments what they think should be on the front page or what the business users think should be on the front page,” he said. “And then you find out what people are really searching for.”
OakGov.com draws from a fully distributed content management system, which enables departments to control their data, and ensures users are always getting a uniform experience with current information. The county has 170 content managers, and it works well that way, because they know their content better than IT does, Bertolini said.
“The investment that we’ve made over the years in keeping our technology current and trying to push that barrier on innovation is paying off and to be recognized as the No. 1 county website in the country is pretty darn important to us," Bertolini said. "I went down and [our staff] and you can see it on their faces – all that work and all that sweat to get this to where it was, because it wasn’t easy. They’re very proud of it and I’m very proud of them.”
View our Best of the Web Winner and Finalist Breakdown on page 2.
Steve Towns, Noelle Knell, Elaine Pittman and Jessica Mulholland contributed to this story.
Best of the Web Winner and Finalist Breakdown
City Portal category1st Place: District of Columbia // dc.gov
With its clean, responsive design, use of analytics for search and services content, and integration of social media, the District of Columbia’s Web portal is top notch – as well it should be, given that it had 29 million visits in 2013 alone, a 7 percent increase over 2012. The portal relaunched in April of this year on Drupal CMS, which saves $300,000 annually in support and administrative costs. The new DC.Gov offers more than 250 Web applications, and reflects a strong commitment to transparency, open government and accessibility: Its data catalog publishes nearly 500 data sets related to crime, service requests, procurements, permits and more; Grade.DC.Gov publicizes monthly grades for 15 District agencies and lets residents give feedback to help agencies improve their customer service; and a “listen” icon in the upper left-hand corner of the site contains a tool that reads that page’s content to visitors with reading or vision disabilities.
2nd Place: City of Los Angeles, CA // lacity.org
On New Year’s Day 2014, the city of Los Angeles unveiled its revamped portal – an upgraded digital locale with responsive design for the city’s nearly 4 million residents to do business with their city around the clock. The city has done this by being smart, open and social: Information is streamlined for citizens, small business owners and tourists, and a “highlights” section offers key content from more than 40 city departments. Site visitors have access to city services, live and on-demand videos of City Council meetings, and easy-to-find job postings, and the site displays a real-time ticker-tape of city Twitter feeds. LACity.org is a gateway to the city’s more innovative services, such as the Real-time DASH Bus Locator, the LAX Real-time Flight Status and the Business Assistance Virtual Network, to name a few. Ultimately LACity.org is designed to deliver lots of information intuitively without overwhelming the site visitor.
3rd Place City of Boulder, CO https://bouldercolorado.gov
The responsive design, seamless social media integration, open data catalog and ease with which constituents can submit online service requests aren’t the only reasons Boulder, Colo.’s Web portal made it to the top three – the system running the site was created through an intergovernmental agreement and collaboration with Arvada to share and develop the same open source, local government-specific CMS. The ultimate goal? To continue providing feature-rich functionality – and share it with other interested local governments in the future. By using open an open source CMS, the city saved taxpayers more than $100,000 in system costs and $15,000 in annual maintenance costs, and the use of an open source data platform software saves the city approximately $20,000 per year.
4th Place: City of Santa Barbara, CA // santabarbaraca.gov
A relaunch of Santa Barbara’s portal in July 2013 provides visual appeal and streamlined navigation across the site, while also catering to mobile usability through responsive design. The My SB portal allows users to log in and select their content and alert preferences, and also customize the “charm bar” on the right to provide easy access to their favorite pages. To support its diverse population, Google Translate is available on the website to provide the information in 79 different languages. And to ensure that information can be updated quickly, departmental staff can now directly manage content via the CMS. On average 63,191 unique visitors access the site each month.
5th Place: City of Riverside, CA // riversideca.gov
Pursuing a “virtual city hall” vision, Riverside continues to move services online and into apps while also improving current offerings to better meet the needs of its residents. For example, using HTML5 and CSS3, the city rebuilt thousands of its Web pages to provide response design, with one-third (32 percent) of its audience visiting the portal from a tablet or smartphone. The site is well organized and set up with citizens in mind: Instead of using the departmental structure, related services are grouped together. New features include a revamped transparency portal and an electronic plan review system that helps homeowners save time while also enabling more streamlined processing of plans. And the upgrades are paying off: Site views increased 25.8 percent from last year to 182,627 unique visitors per month on average.
Finalist: City and County of Denver, CO // denvergov.org
User-centric design and a long list of innovative online services make Denver's digital home one of the nation's top local government websites. The city says an average of 750,000 people visit the site each month, and there are plenty of reasons to stop by. An interactive DMV app guides motorists through different vehicle registration scenarios. Citizens can register to vote online and track the location of mail ballots. In addition, the city used Twitter's open source Bootstrap framework to create a near real-time interactive city checkbook for financial transparency and an inmate search app that tracks court dates and jail locations of criminal offenders. A new online payment system, which eliminated convenience fees for electronic transactions, collected more than $50 million last year. Online payments have grown almost 300 percent since the fees were dropped in 2013, the city says, and growing use of electronic payments has reduced processing costs by $8 million.
Finalist: City of Fort Collins, CO // fcgov.com
Businesses can pay sales tax and submit plans for development review using the Fort Collins portal. Residents and businesses also can use the site to perform transactions with the city-owned utility company, including setting up accounts, starting and stopping service, and paying their bills. In addition, the site allows users to monitor water and electricity consumption. Fort Collins uses a mix of city-managed apps and hosted tools to provide online services. For instance, the city used Esri's hosted ArcGIS service to create an interactive map showing images of disastrous flooding that struck Colorado's Front Range last September. The site draws slightly more than 100,000 visitors per month on average, the city says.
Finalist: City of Palo Alto, CA // cityofpaloalto.org
Palo Alto residents can report potholes or hundreds of other issues online through a new PaloAlto311 app. Users can drag and drop their service requests on a map, add a picture of the problem and mark the issue private if it's sensitive. The submitter and "followers" can track the request to its resolution using the city website or a mobile device. An interactive Civic Insight tool launched earlier this year lets residents view a building's permit history, track projects, receive alerts during the permitting process and analyze trends over time. An open data platform created last year supports Palo Alto's "open data by default" policy, offering frequently requested data from city departments. The city says its open data policy has reduced the number of information requests, saving staff time and cutting printing costs. As Palo Alto incorporates more cloud-based services into its website, a new branding guide ensures a uniform look and user experience. The Palo Alto site receives an average of more than 76,000 unique visitors per month, the city says.
Finalist: City of Raleigh, NC // raleighnc.gov
Raleigh's clean, responsive design integrates GIS information into many features, like a recently added Park Locator app. The city integrated SeeClickFix, the non-emergency citizen reporting app, with its internal work management system, making the reporting process more seamless for users. The city's award-winning open data portal offers nearly 700 data sets, including public meeting calendars, crime and fire data, budget information and land use. Raleigh citizens get email and wireless alerts through MyRaleigh Subscriptions, a cloud-based service that has experienced nearly 45 percent growth in the past year.
Finalist: City of Sacramento, CA // portal.cityofsacramento.org
A new look and feel for Sacramento's website unifies city department pages, offering intuitive navigation to site content, which has also been overhauled based on user behavior. Accessibility and responsiveness are hallmarks of the new site, which logged more than 2 million unique page views in its first seven months. The redesign, completed in-house, involved transitioning to a content management system empowering department-level staff to update their own content. Sacramento's mobile-friendly approach is evidenced by a new 311 mobile app, complemented by an open data portal that they report is already cutting down on public records requests.
County Portal category1st Place: Oakland County, MI // oakgov.com
Oakland County's top-ranked OakGov site uses adaptive design to automatically detect a user's device type and deliver a version of the site matched to the device's dimensions and native features. As a result, this simple and elegantly designed site displays appropriately and works seamlessly on desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones Internet-enabled TVs or other Internet connected hardware. Site navigation is organized around three simple choices — the most popular links, county departments and online services. These three options lead visitors to the right information in 95 percent of use cases, the county says. OakGov attracted 2.5 million unique visitors in fiscal 2013, or an average of 214,000 per month. Those visitors viewed 13.2 million pages and played podcasts and videos more than 45,000 times. E-commerce transactions on the site produced gross revenue of more than $13.8 million over that time, the county says, saving more than $4 million for taxpayers and government operations.
2nd Place: Sacramento County, CA // saccounty.net
Sacramento County's mobile-first site was designed initially for small screens and then scaled up for larger devices. This approach, along with the use of responsive design, allowed the county to shut down its separate mobile site. The new site also features expanded use of online permitting and licensing. Users can apply for 28 types of permits online, and the county expects to have all of its permit applications available on the site by the end of the year. County building and code enforcement inspectors also are linked to the system, allowing them to perform real-time inspections using tablet computers. An open data portal, launched in July, publishes popular data sets and has saved more than $100,000 in labor costs by reducing information requests, the county says. This functional and well designed site draws an average of more than 45,000 unique visitors per month.
3rd Place: King County, WA // kingcounty.gov
King County relaunched its portal last year taking a user-focused and modern approach, which has led to a decrease in calls to customer service and an increase in visits to top-level services and information pages. The county analyzed which services people were looking for online and in response built out the “How Do I?” dropdown menu, providing easy access to top needs. Citing better access to information and mobile rendering, the number of unique visitors to the portal has grown by 17 percent — 1.16 million unique visitors access the site on average each month. One feature that’s made a big impact is a Web page where homeowners can electronically appeal their property valuations and view comparable sales. A report from January says that 30 percent of appeals are now filed online.
4th Place: Wake County, NC // wakegov.com
Built in-house, WakeGOV.com has a strong focus on search and helps users easily find the information they’re seeking via the “I want to…” dropdown menu. Live video of Board of Commissioners meetings and easy access to operational data promote transparency. The open data section has been leveraged by external users like Yelp, which includes the county’s sanitation scores in its restaurant listings. Social media buttons are on the right side of each page, enabling and encouraging sharing of information and images. Visitors to the site have increased 36 percent to 116 million page views last year.
5th Place: Grand County, CO // www.co.grand.co.us
An easy-to-use online presence is especially beneficial in Grand County, which is one of Colorado’s largest counties by area. The nearest town to the county seat is 10 miles away, and many property owners live out of state. Grand County started its Web presence in 1999, but officials realized four years later that its home-grown system had reached the limits and it was time to move to a CMS. What once took hours to make updates now takes minutes, allowing staff to focus on standardization and an easy-to-navigate portal. The county also updated its online mapping applications and produced an online map viewer for public safety. For example, many communities are located along the banks of the Colorado and Fraser rivers, so Grand County developed a map app that shows areas prone to flooding and public safety features like evacuation areas. In addition, every recorded survey map is available as a PDF on the site, which has almost eliminated requests for printed maps, saving money and time.
Finalist: Baltimore County, MD // baltimorecountymd.gov
Visitors to the Baltimore County, Md., Web portal have it pretty easy: The global navigation, sectioned into three categories based on what they want to do, what they’re looking for or who they need to contact, seamlessly guides them, and then remains prominently displayed throughout the entire site so that no matter where a site visitor is, all major sections can be accessed immediately. Relaunched in March of 2014, the portal now includes online pet licensing, code enforcement complaints, rental housing registration for landlords and land management records search.
Finalist: Chesterfield County, VA // chesterfield.gov
Launched in 2009, the Chesterfield County, Va., Web portal has made continuous revisions since, focusing its new content on mobile-first. Since its initial launch, the portal has integrated enhanced features such as GIS mapping and data systems, online payment solutions, online library services, an online recreation program registration system and customer-centric data delivery, to name a few. As needs for services arise, the in-house development team works to deploy them – which provides a cost-savings while improving functionality and usefulness.
Finalist: Miami-Dade County, FL // miamidade.gov
Navigation throughout the Miamidade.gov portal is simple – in addition to menus that take site visitors where they want to go, a breadcrumb follows as users travel throughout the site, offering another layer of navigation. Being “social” is a big focus for the county, which cross-promotes events and messages on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as is the sharing of ideas to make things better. With the MyGovIdea program, residents and employees can submit ideas that can save money, improve efficiency and streamline service delivery. Ideas that became solutions include the Transit Tracker and iFoundaPet apps, among others.
Finalist: Pinellas County, FL // pinellascounty.org
Pinellas County made great strides this year in increasing transparency, with new real-time financial and service request data available through the Web app "Spending in the Sunshine," which taps into the county's enterprise financial system to offer detail down to the invoice level. A mobile app invites citizens to submit neighborhood concerns, and register support for issues offered up by fellow citizens. An active social media strategy includes a YouTube video library, a focused Facebook engagement plan and a comprehensive Twitter alert program. These and other concentrated engagement efforts are paying off, as the county logged more than $24 million in online transactions last year, as well as a 60 percent increase in service request efficiency.
Finalist: Salt Lake County, UT // slco.org
Responsive design greets visitors to Salt Lake County's multi-lingual website, along with task-based content prioritized by user behavior. A new content management system eases updates from staff throughout the organization, regardless of their level of coding experience. The site is designed to allow emergency alerts on the home page when they are warranted, and agile development and technology allows for rapid deployment of new applications and services.
Finalist: County of San Diego, CA // www.sdcounty.ca.gov
San Diego County's website also benefits from a simple, consistent design across departments, developed to meet accessibility requirements. In an area that frequently suffers from wildfires, the county has a robust emergency site that relies on cloud servers, allowing them to simply scale up during periods of high demand. A unified app center is a one-stop shop for the 12 mobile apps the county offers, including a beach water quality app, "Finding Rover," and a recycling resource app. A mobile app also directs citizens to the County News Center, where experienced staff deliver daily news. The Planning and Development Services Department added several new online services this year, like HVAC permits and solar panel permits, saving hundreds of staff hours in manual processing.
Finalist: County of San Mateo, CA // smcgov.org
San Mateo County used an open source platform for its new responsive, accessible website, utilizing features intended to maintain a unified look while allowing flexibility for individual departments. A more sophisticated search function and integrated social media, calendars, syndicated content and other features contribute to more engaged site visitors overall. A more efficient publishing process empowers subject matter experts with simple tools to effectively communicate their messages, choosing the apps they need. The county credits the flexibility of OpenPublic, a Drupal distribution aimed at the public sector for the model of "continuous improvement" they have adopted for the site, given its built-in flexibility and reduced operating costs over its previous system.
State Portal category1st Place: Hawaii // portal.ehawaii.gov
Hawaii's new website represents a dramatic overhaul, with simple, intuitive navigation and scenic imagery layered over a cloud-based, mobile-first site built on open source technology. A powerful and intuitive search function guides users to the information they seek on this responsive site, which offers rotating stats on the home page documenting actual transactions completed on the site. GIS-based services include a "Near Me" map linked on the home page, guiding visitors to nearby services and amenities. Visitors who register get a personalized dashboard based on their interactions with the state, complete with transaction history. A shift toward gamification offers citizens leaderboards and badges to make doing state business less of a chore. CIO Keone Kali reports that the tactics are working, as online service adoption has increased 20 percent in one year.
2nd Place: Utah // utah.gov
Utah's "search-centric" design features a powerful search function front and center on its home page, surrounded by a handful of navigation topics pointing to information site users most often want. A five-part process guided the site's most recent update, which included getting input from design thinkers and state partners, while leveraging best practices in design and social media integration. The state's focus on secondary pages is reflected in engaging design, which features topic-specific infographics, helping them to stand alone as independent Web pages. Vertically oriented design throughout the site supports Utah's mobile-first, responsive strategy. Targeted geolocation is in wide use as well, along with contextual maps to help bring the state's data to life for users. Utah continues to see its Web traffic increase, with nearly 1.8 million unique visitors in March 2014, an increase of more than 40 percent over the previous year.
3rd Place: Arkansas // arkansas.gov
Since the Arkansas.gov redesign in April 2013, the state has taken user feedback to implement improvements on the portal, which was a finalist in the 2013 Best of the Web awards. The key features and enhancements that likely nudged Arkansas.gov into third place this year are: the Gov2Go text messaging service that helps Arkansans navigate three levels of government in one place; upgrades to Smart Search, which includes natural language processing, and geolocation and dynamic search suggestions; and the responsive design and vertical layout that makes access the portal on any device clean and simple.
4th Place: Texas // texas.gov
Pointing to dramatic increases in site visits from mobile devices and tablets since 2013 (152 and 225 percent, respectively), Texas.gov uses mobile-first, responsive design. Geolocation features help site visitors identify services and facilities near them, while continuous enhancements to the search function cater to the one in six users who need it. The state's commitment to transparency can be seen in its 450 open data sources coming from more than 160 public entities. A streamlined home page offers simple text navigation as well as a series of graphic icons pointing users to frequently accessed information. Prominently featured data visualizations document online transactions like license renewals and enrollments in the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), while encouraging site visitors to take care of their state business online too – Texas has more than 1,000 online services available. The state reports that its site averages nearly 500,000 unique visits a month.
5th Place: Maryland // maryland.gov
The state launched a new portal in March 2013 with intuitive design and functionality, and recent upgrades aim to make it personalizable. The MyMaryland Clipboard feature allows users to save links within the site without having to create an account by saving the information in the person’s Web browser. The Social Media Hub allows people to see what’s trending and interact directly with the state. And location-aware information, like weather and alerts, is shared with users who opt to provide their whereabouts or are automatically detected. In addition, the predictive instant search feature aggregates information across the enterprise into themes including pages, online services and publications. On average, the site is visited by 258,156 users per month.
Finalist: Indiana // in.gov
With 40 percent of users visiting IN.gov from a mobile device, the state portal focuses on mobility and personalization. Users can personalize their experience through my.IN.gov by creating an account or using existing log in information from social media accounts including Facebook and Twitter. The “I Am” feature allows users to identify themselves, for example as a business owner, and preselected information is highlighted that may be of interest to that person. To determine which links to place on the home page, analytics were studied to understand what information was the most frequently accessed online. Indiana’s more than 55,000 Web pages and 250 websites have a uniform design, providing standardization for users as they access different information and services. It’s been named the most transparent state site by U.S. PIRG, with the transparency portal providing a checkbook-level, user-friendly interface.
Finalist: Kansas // kansas.gov
Leaving behind the “kitchen sink” thinking of government portals, Kansas’ site has a clean layout focused on search. The state took a mobile-first approach, stating that there’s been an 850 percent increase since 2011 in users accessing the site from a handheld device. Using geolocation, the site shows users services or agencies located near them. Social media is featured prominently, and visually appealing icons aid navigation. The Services tab features the ability to use Voice Search on Google Chrome, adding an innovative accessibility feature. The state reported that on average 64,291 visitors access the site each month.
Finalist: Missouri // mo.gov
Mo.gov is built on the open source Wordpress content management system and hosted in the Missouri state data center. State officials say the in-house approach allows IT staff to tailor the portal to Missouri's unique content and audience. The site offers 650 online services, as well as a comprehensive transparency section that lets users track tax expenditures and search nearly 3,000 open data sets. Unified search functionality enables users to search all content on mo.gov and its subdomains using common keywords. Curated topic pages guide visitors to common subject areas like "driving and vehicles" or "taxes." The site attracts more than 173,000 unique visitors per month, the state says.
Finalist: Nebraska // nebraska.gov
Nebraska's newly redesigned homepage incorporates a lively tile-based design that provides access to lots of information with just a few clicks. After intense study of user analytics and other factors, the site's topic-based tiles were grouped into eight categories. Each tile leads users to a comprehensive landing page for a given topic. The site, which draws an average of 50,000 visitors per month, also is built to work with touchscreen and swipe-intuitive devices. For mobile users, vertical and horizontal swipe functionality allows the site to deliver a large amount of information to smaller screens and provide easy navigation.
Finalist: Oregon // www.oregon.gov
Oregon's first website redesign in eight years is the product of extensive citizen feedback and more than 200 usability tests. The result is a mobile-first site that eliminates clutter and focuses on what state residents say are their most important needs. Prominent homepage tiles lead users to landing pages for high-interest topics like payments, forms, licenses and drivers' services. A maps page shows the location of DMV offices, state parks and employment centers. On the back end, the state supports 165 agency websites through a single centralized content management system. Oregon's home page draws an impressive 1.4 million unique visitors per month, according to the state.