Following the lead of other state and local governments, the city is rethinking its website and opting for an open-source solution. The agile process will mean a more user-friendly portal and better access to services.
The team behind Portland.gov, the new homepage for the city of Portland, Ore., is dismantling the 18-year-old website used by residents to access services and interact with city hall — replacing it piece-by-piece with a new user and mobile-friendly interface.
The Portland Oregon Website Replacement (POWR) project team successfully navigated an alpha and beta website, but the public launch of the redesigned homepage is fast approaching. Portland.gov is slated to take over as the primary exchange between the city and residents in June. The handoff will be determined by how quickly the POWR team passes through five "gates," such as the migration of critical services; the creation of webpages for elected officials; redirection links for information that is either too old or still in transition; the creation of a new city park finder; and a revised presentation of the city’s charter, code and policies.
PortlandOregon.gov won’t be decommissioned right away, facets will continue to be reworked to comply with the standards of Portland.gov with a tentative sunset of the proprietary Coldfusion website in 2021.
It’s a growing trend across government to increase resident engagement. The POWR team looked at several recent initiatives nationally and abroad, including Mass.gov, Boston.gov, Gov.uk and Australia.gov.au. Government IT groups designed each using open-source methods to create a standardized, accessible product.
Deputy Chief Technology Officer Dan Bauer said the trajectory of Portland.gov is indicative of the “evolution and optimization of Portland’s digital services.” Bauer, who was part of a team in 2000 charged with developing PortlandOnline.com that featured some of the city’s first online transactions and information, said the intent of the POWR project is provide residents with a mobile or desktop experience akin to search engines.
“With each iteration of these services the teams have focused on delivering services that enhance the ability of our community and our government to interact in new and meaningful way offering a higher level of accessibility and availability of engagement,” Bauer wrote in an email.
After the approval of the POWR project, Bauer helped recruit Joshua Mitchell, who served as a member of city’s Technology Oversight Committee and who upgraded the Multnomah County digital services platform.
Mitchell came onboard as the consulting project manager and leveraged his experience with open-source Web design to keep the project’s cost to a $1.2 million investment over four years.
“You could go to a licensed vendor product and you’re going to have the development road map that they’ve put together in order for them to remain profitable,” Mitchell said. “But you bring it in-house and it’s going to be the road map that your community needs based on the feedback your community has.”
The POWR team decided to build the redesigned homepage using the open-sourced content management system Drupal, which factored into the decision to recruit Mitchell, a former CTO of the Drupal Association.
“Knowing the road ahead it was a natural fit to engage Josh for the POWR project,” Bauer said. “This approach has been extremely beneficial to the city. Josh brings a depth of technology and product experience and best practice that allows our teams to execute to their full potential.”
Mitchell and the team identified three standards to measure their workflow against: search engine optimization, accessibility for the disabled and clear, simple language at the fifth- to eighth-grade reading level.
The redesign, homepage transition and retirement of the legacy content management system is a big project, Mitchell said, he and the POWR team broke the lift down into three phases, further distilling it into quarterly goals and finally planning work into “sprints” of three to four weeks. An agile workflow allows the group to adapt to community and internal feedback quickly and efficiently.
“That is how software is built,” Mitchell said. “If you are not flexible and nimble, you will build something that no one is happy using.”
PortlandOregon.gov accumulated a sizeable amount of information throughout its lifespan. Mitchell put a ballpark estimate at around 350,000 content objects, roughly 70 percent of which are PDFs. He said the old platform was more akin to a folder structure with a multitude of documents stored within.
The scope of content requiring revision and the turnover in staff responsible for posting and editing items that will be migrated to the new website has posed the greatest challenge for the POWR team, Mitchell said. There are about 250 “active editors,” most of whom are administrative employees who frequently move between the different bureaus within the city or leave civil service.
“This new platform is requiring us to change the average skills and abilities of a huge number of city staff,” he said. “That is a big effort in itself. We have had to do a lot of training and retraining to make that happen.”
While bureau officials have been excited and supportive of the change, he said they’ve found themselves a bit overwhelmed with rewriting content to meet the potential needs of screen readers, the colorblind and vision impaired, and conveying a complex concept or service to a broad audience with varying levels of education.
Editors are also responsible for ensuring that their bureau’s posts are mobile friendly. Mitchell said about 50 percent of traffic to the city’s homepage is from smartphones and staff need to be aware of how website elements change when viewed by different devices.
“It’s not something that gets done with this one big launch [in June],” Mitchell said. “It took 18 years to create it — it will take far less than that to transform it — but it’s never done. It’s still going to continuously have content added to it and new features added to it.”
Portland.gov has gone through various iterations and will continue to be tweaked even after it becomes the city’s homepage. While Drupal has several design options, Mitchell said he and the team looked elsewhere for inspiration, too.
A focal point has been Gov.uk, Mitchell said, because the digital services standards “are well considered and tested.”
Portland isn’t the only government reviewing interfaces nationally and globally. A team in California is developing an alpha redesign of the state’s homepage based on Gov.uk.
The builders of Mass.gov provided a template for a phased transition to a redesigned website. In Massachusetts, a team began in 2016 with a detailed analysis of user traffic and the creation of pilot.mass.gov using Drupal. The Northeast state then launched the new user-centered state website in September 2017 and by leveraging user feedback and Web analytics served 90 percent of Web traffic by May of 2018, while running in tandem with the old interface.
The POWR team adopted many of the methods used in the deployment of the new Mass.gov, such as rewriting services to be understood — in Massachusetts' case — at the sixth-grade level.
The city of Boston edged out the state by launching a redesigned website in July 2016 that also featured 20,000 rewritten Web pages and 1 million words. Although the city partnered with IDEO, a design company and Acquia, a Boston-based open-source company.
If the POWR team saw a website item from these predecessors that met their criteria but wasn’t readily available in Drupal, then the group would borrow the concept and build a similar component in the open-source content management system for testing with the use of project management tools like GitHub, Jira and Circle CI.
“From a technical standpoint, I think we truly have one of the more successful implementations of continuous integration and continuous development that I’ve seen in the government space,” Mitchell said. “It’s a strong technical team.”
Deputy CTO Bauer hopes that the successful transition from the proprietary PortlandOregon.gov to the open-source Portland.gov will enhance the city’s Smart City PDX, its urban data and technology division.
Mitchell agreed that the POWR project has been a hub for a lot of changes and that Portland.gov is turning static information into data that can be queried and analyzed.
“We have a replacement project that’s going on right now that’s getting some extra resources, but the ongoing team that continues to support this into the future will continue to innovate,” he said. “It’s not a one-and-done sort of experience or expectation.”
Of the five gates standing between the transition from the old website to the new, the team has successfully passed through one, Mitchell said. However, he pointed out that he and the team are closing the gap on the remaining four with slated completion dates ranging from the next couple of weeks to the end of March.
“Our overall goal is to switch over to the new Portland.gov homepage no later than June 2020. Right now, I think we will make that switch a bit sooner than that,” he said.