States and localities have their work cut out for them when it comes to modernizing their portals.
When he was a project manager working on website design in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation last year, Dave Seliger did an inventory of all the city’s websites. He found 343 distinct sites, some of them abandoned and dating back to 2003. “We were finding crazy things that we had no idea existed,” he said, “but if you were a citizen you might stumble across them and think they were relevant.”
Seliger noted that the typical New Yorker can interact with 120 different government organizations. “We started to realize that from the user’s point of view what we had been doing made no sense whatsoever,” he said.
New York City is not alone in re-evaluating its website strategy. Digital strategists from states, cities and counties charged with refreshing websites are seeking to develop platforms that are more streamlined, citizen-centric, mobile-friendly and less likely to grow obsolete in a few years. Many sites designed before 2007 have not been updated to reflect the fact that a large percentage of citizens access their portal on a mobile device.
Boston is going through a thorough website redesign for the first time since 2006. Lauren Lockwood, the city’s chief digital officer, said that in the past few years, Boston had been surveying users about their experience. “On a scale of zero to 100, we were getting a 55, which is failing by any measure,” she said.
Other surveys suggest members of the public are somewhat underwhelmed by government digital efforts. In an April 2015 survey of nearly 2,200 adults conducted by the Center for Digital Government for state portal developer NIC, only 18 percent of respondents strongly agreed that their state is committed to better serving citizens online.
A December 2014 online survey of 334 local governments found that only 34 percent of respondents rated their agency’s websites as “highly effective,” according to Vision Internet, a technology firm specializing in government website development.
Many smaller cities and counties struggle to keep content on their sites fresh, said John McKown, president of Evo Studios, which designs municipal websites. “We see a lot of empty news areas and empty calendars, and social media accounts that aren’t used,” he said. “The smaller they are, the more this seems to happen.”
Although state governments have more resources to devote to their Web presence, they often suffer from inconsistencies across agencies, both in terms of effort and infrastructure. “Previously we had a digital landscape that was disjointed,” said Billy Hylton, digital services director of North Carolina, who has overseen a Digital Commons project to develop common Web standards across the state.
“From a branding standpoint, a whole bunch of logos and identity systems were being used,” he said. “From an information architecture standpoint, the navigation and menus were structured differently depending on which sites you were on. Some sites had search and some didn’t. Some search experiences were good, some not so good. Every site should be responsive for mobile today, right? But a few years back, we had a lot of sites where the experience on a mobile device was not good.”
Putting more government transactions online continues to be a challenge for states. The corporations division in the Oregon Secretary of State’s office just crossed an important threshold: It now does more than 50 percent of its transactions online, said Peter Threlkel, who heads up that division and serves as chair of the state’s E-Government Portal Advisory Board. Citing estimates that an offline transaction costs about $17 versus $4 for an online transaction, he said that has led to pretty significant savings. But Threlkel added that citizens and businesses have in the past expressed impatience with the state because it couldn’t deploy more services online.
That was one of the reasons Oregon partnered with NIC — to break through some IT logjams. “There has always been a limit to how much agencies could accomplish with the resources they had,” Threlkel said. “NIC has already done a lot of the things we are asking for in other states and can bring those in and turn them around quickly. That really helps.”
From its perspective providing digital solutions for more than 4,500 federal, state and local agencies, NIC has a bird’s-eye view of the stress agencies are under. “I don’t think Oregon is any exception. We have seen no shortage in the needs of states to bring online services to government partners,” said Robert Knapp, chief operating officer of NIC. “We have a queue in each state of services they are trying to bring online. It is difficult for them to pause and look into the future and spend time on those things. We have tried to serve as the R&D shop for them.”
Mark Headd, the former chief data officer of Philadelphia and currently developer evangelist at Accela Inc., said part of the problem has been government officials’ old-school mindset about the purpose of a website. “The old way of thinking about a government website was essentially that it was a one-way communication. Mayors, governors and commissioners saw it as a way to push their information out to people, and less as a transactional platform,” he said. “I think that is changing now, but it hasn’t come easy.”
Aaron Ogle, who recently left his position as director of civic technology for Philadelphia, was in charge of the city’s Web redesign process, which is still taking place at alpha.phila.gov. One problem his team sought to solve was organizational. “The information architecture was almost a one-to-one correspondence with the organization structure of the government itself. It was essentially a digital manifestation of the org chart,” he said. “We realized that meant that the public needed to understand how government worked if they were going to effectively navigate the website. If you want to pay your water bill, do you pay the water department or the revenue department or the water revenue bureau? It’s not intuitive which one is going to provide you with the services you need.”
Lockwood said Boston is trying to address the same problem. “When we were doing user interviews, one constituent said the website felt like Boston just opened its filing cabinets and said, ‘Here it is. It is all there for you.’ That is really a good description of the site. We force constituents to understand our internal structure.”
In its redesign, Boston is focusing on organizing content by topics. “The distinction we are trying to draw with topics is that there is a big difference between making information available and making it accessible,” she said, “and we are trying to bridge that gap.” The topics approach is an attempt to provide a one-stop shop for constituents, so if they have a car and want to know everything they need to know about having a car in the city, they can get that information without having to go to six departments for it.
What has emerged from these two Web redesign efforts is the importance of using modern, open source tools and doing constant iterative design rather than “big bang” projects every five years. “Right now it is important that you have mobile-responsive websites,” Lockwood said. “The hard thing is that we don’t know what the big thing is going to be in 10 years, so the solution is to use tools that are adaptable.”
Boston has decided to build its new site based on Drupal, rather than purchase and install a proprietary system. “We think making sure there is an ecosystem of developers out there to maintain and improve it over time is the only way we are going to have tools that evolve with our users’ needs,” Lockwood said.
Likewise, by default any tool that Philadelphia builds goes up on its GitHub account, so people can download it, log issues and make suggestions. That includes a property search application the city built. Could that lead to more cities reusing applications built by others? “That is my hope,” Ogle said, “but it is not an easy thing mostly because data feeds are not standard. I think data standards such as the General Transit Feed Specification for transit are going to become more important.”
Another approach common to Boston’s and Philadelphia’s is the decision to design gradually and share progress with the public in order to get feedback before going any further. “If we are going to build a website around the needs of our users, then we have to involve them in the process,” Lockwood said. “We did a deep-dive research phase about what the point of a government website really is in the fourth quarter of last year and met with a lot of city residents. We launched a pilot that was just four pages and have added more content over time. That allows us to test ideas with people and collect feedback.”
A renewed focus on the use of analytics to drive design is becoming more prevalent. Analytics can help track the flow of people through a specific service, and understand how far they got and where they stopped. Philadelphia took analytics.usa.gov, the federal government’s 18F dashboard, and deployed it for the city. “It was the first repurposing of that software,” said Ogle. “Analytics.phila.gov is now a thing thanks to that open source software of the federal government.”
North Carolina’s Hylton said a focus on analytics is driving growth in usage. From January 2015 to 2016, NC.gov saw a 75 percent increase in total users and 140 percent more mobile users. “What is different from a few years ago is that our culture has changed to understand the need for analytics and the need to make data-driven decisions,” he said. Before Digital Commons, some analytics data was flowing, but it was often apples to oranges and not a real picture of user trends. “We recognized this as an issue that was preventing us from getting the right data to track over time.”
Lockwood said cities are increasingly building capacity on the data and analytics side. She cited the fact that Boston just hired the city’s first product manager for its website as an example of the way the culture in city governments is changing in relation to technology. “Products are not just things you launch and let decay or go into maintenance mode. Instead, they are things you are investing in constantly and growing and improving over time.”
The problem of technology trends changing faster than government procurement and implementation has hampered New York City at times, according to Seliger. “Before we get to a point where we can think about the next big thing, we haven’t caught up with the migration that was supposed to happen years ago, and there is just so much content out there,” he said.
Several years ago the city decided to standardize on a basic website template. But groups like the Department of Sanitation started hacking the template and embedding their own features, because the new standards couldn’t keep up with the services agencies were delivering. “Even though we had this template, it couldn’t keep up with modern times,” Seliger said. “That is the way a lot of things in government IT work. You spend five years migrating back-end processes to a new platform and by the time you finish, it is out of date.”
Tim Dupuis, CIO for Alameda County, Calif., echoed these concerns about websites growing outdated. Noting that the county won a 2013 Best of the Web award from the Center for Digital Government, he said, “If you look at our site today, we believe it looks dated. It looks three years old. The market and the tools available are changing so rapidly that we have to come right back around and revisit it.” The county is working on a new Google Search Appliance to make the site more search-centric, as opposed to menu-driven drill-downs, he added.
An example of having to change course to follow the market involves mobile apps. Four years ago Alameda County created teams to develop native mobile apps. “That was a whole new skill set we were adopting and investing in,” Dupuis said. “But over time we have found the demand for downloadable apps has dropped, and people are more engaged in mobile-friendly websites. So we started focusing more of our attention on that. People don’t feel the need to download an app just to pay property tax once or twice a year.”
Some technologies being experimented with today point toward the government website of the next decade. NIC’s Knapp noted two examples: Mississippi and Utah are experimenting with the Amazon Echo voice-activated digital assistant, and Arkansas launched a Gov2Go smart application. With Gov2Go, users tell the app some basic information such as which county they live in and what vehicle they drive, and based upon that data, it builds a calendar of their government interactions throughout the year. In addition, users are sent notifications when a property tax or franchise tax payment is due.
Hylton believes North Carolina’s first step was creating a unified, citizen-focused experience across its Web presence. Step two is making it easier for the business community to engage with the state for licensing and permitting. Web services and application programming interfaces will be a part of that.
“Data may not be in our content management system but in other applications, through modern Web services, we can consume that data,” he said. Looking further out, he used the term “omnichannel” to describe an application that sounds like Arkansas’ Gov2Go. “If a mom in Raleigh is wondering about her auto tags, instead of having to go to NC.gov and search for auto tags and drill down to find the information, through personalizing our services, she will get pinged so that the right information reaches her at the right time.”
Evo Studio’s McKown said the website of the future will do a better job of integrating 311 systems, which today are often siloed apps, with other applications, including GIS. He noted that an Open311 standard should make that easier.
One concept that may gain favor in government data circles is “microservices,” according to Accela’s Headd. The basic definition is a very discrete service that does one thing well and could be a building block for larger pieces of technology. The idea is that instead of building a monolithic system, you build more complex things by piecing together microservices.
Around property data, a city could have a microservice that does address verification. You give it an address such as the intersection of First and Main, and the service would return the properly formatted address. (This is important because it’s common for different agencies to have slightly different address information for the same parcel.) “Instead of trying to be everything to everybody, a city could create these small little services and encourage others to create them too by giving them open data,” Headd said.
Alameda County’s Dupuis said if governments could start to integrate the improvements in combination with artificial intelligence and voice technology such as Apple’s Siri, “it would take away the friction and the barriers for the public to find our services. They immediately get to it and use it. That is exciting and will open up a whole new world of opportunities for us to make sure we are making the services that government has available to our constituents.”