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Benchmarking Study Provides Wakeup Call for City Websites

A new study finds that there's a significant need in the market for website redesign and a set of tools to make those websites more mobile-first, user-centered and services-oriented.

City websites still leave much to be desired, according to a new study.

Civic website developer OpenCities conducted a benchmarking study of websites of the 3,035 U.S. municipalities with populations of more than 10,000 citizens — and found they still lag considerably behind their commercial counterparts.

The study found that 32 percent have poor optimization for mobile or tablet devices; 87 percent received a failing grade for encryption; 40 percent failed accessibility tests, and fewer than 9 percent are written at a reading level that average Americans can comfortably grasp.

Jack Madans, one of the co-authors of Building Better City Websites, is a former product growth lead at Code for America, and is the new managing director of the U.S. office of OpenCities, which handles 20 percent of Australian local government websites. 
“The report is our first foray into this space to understand where government websites are lagging behind commercial online sites,” he told Government Technology. “We found that there was a significant need in the market for website redesign and a set of tools to make those websites more mobile-first, user-centered and services-oriented.” 

Madans said OpenCities wanted to find out exactly where these websites are lagging behind the commercial space, so it created this yardstick to measure where and by how much.

“It is important to address why that disparity matters,” he said. “We believe that the disparity comes with a price. When a citizen can easily buy an item on yet struggles to find a city official or pay a utility bill online, it furthers their belief that governments can’t deliver.”

Madans had the opportunity to interact with city website developers in his time at Code for America, where he worked with Yelp and San Francisco to scale the restaurant inspection data initiative to other cities via the Code for America Peer Network. So some of the benchmark study’s findings are not surprising to him.

“I talked to 80 different cities about how they manage their sites and started to understand some of the organizational pressures cities face. I knew that cities were lagging in mobile responsiveness,” he said. “What was really the wakeup call in this report is around content readability — finding out that only 9 percent of U.S. city websites are written at a grade level that most Americans can easily grasp.”

The encryption numbers raised eyebrows as well.

“The fact that 89 percent of city websites we surveyed have no or failing SSL [encryption] is a huge wakeup call, especially when you have browsers such as Chrome and Firefox signaling that they are going to warn users about unencrypted sites,” Madans said. “That creates a situation where Google is telling you not to trust your city.”

If mobile responsiveness is going to make a city website irrelevant to anyone trying to look at it on the go, the accessibility issue could be a larger risk management problem, he noted. “We are already seeing the Department of Justice and other independent agencies are looking at class-action lawsuits against government websites that are not ADA-compliant.”

On the bright side, he said, the report shows that more cities seem to understand that they need to move from a department-centric organization of their website to a service-centric orientation. “We are seeing more cities are showing ‘top tasks’ on their home page,” he said. 

Before officially releasing the report, Madans said OpenCities did a “soft launch” with the National Association of Government Web Professionals to make sure the developer wasn't sending the wrong message.

“I wanted to be sure that the message is not that we are shaming them in any way,” he said. “The goal is to try and help the people working on city websites get the resources they need to fix this and to help their high-level decision-makers understand where they stand.”

Citizens often don’t know what their cities do, which is both a challenge and an opportunity, Madans said. “The opportunity is if they can go to the website and have a positive, informative experience, it can not only be a tool to more efficiently deliver services, it can also increase trust.”

He offered this caveat about the report: getting an excellent score down the line on these criteria does not mean you have a great city website. “What it means is that you are getting the basics right,” he said. “No tool or platform can promise a great city website. But it can deliver a sturdy enough platform to connect with residents online.”