5 Things Local Government Gets Wrong About Websites

Nearly every local government organization has a website, but a recent survey revealed only 34% of local government staff believe their websites are highly effective. Why is that? Between managing the technology and keeping the site up to date, many lose focus on why the organization has a website in the first place

by Ashley Fruechting, Senior Director of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships

Vision Internet

Nearly every local government organization has a website, but a recent survey revealed only 34% of local government staff believe their websites are highly effective. Why is that? Between managing the technology and keeping the site up to date, many lose focus on why the organization has a website in the first place.

A municipal website exists to serve residents and represent the community as a whole. For many citizens, it’s the primary way to interact with local government. To be effective, a site must support this core objective and provide services the way residents want and expect them.

In addition to day-to-day interaction with thousands of government IT and communications professionals, this past year, Vision Internet held a series of “Innovation Academies” across the country in which local government peers shared their successes and challenges in managing their municipal websites. Based on those meetings, we’ve compiled the following list of the five most common misconceptions about government sites.

  1. A website is purely a technology project

Which department should “own” the website? While IT sounds like the natural choice based on their expertise in underlying Web technology, creating an effective website requires more than the latest technology. It requires an overarching communications strategy.

Research and planning are the first steps in creating a successful website -- one in which visitors find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately on that understanding in the time and effort that they think it is worth.  What do they need? What do they care about most? How do they want to access it? How can we make day-to-day life easier for the people we serve?

Citizens must be made aware of the tools and services available to them, which requires marketing and communications to drive citizen engagement. Website copy must be written in clear, plain language, content should be organized according to visitor needs with key messages front and center.  “If you build it, they will come,” may have been true in “Field of Dreams,” but websites require ongoing promotion. Communities that do this right are rewarded with more engaged and satisfied residents.

  1. We need to publish all the information we have

The impulse of many website managers to publish every piece of information they have, comes from a good place: the desire to inform citizens. But the result can be information overload. To communicate effectively, look at your pages holistically and decide what to keep, what to archive, what to delete and what to write. Less is more.

Permit registration pages present a perfect example. A typical resident will want to know if a permit is required and then complete it online.  Yet many city sites lead with information about laws, codes, ordinances, and even HISTORY before addressing the resident’s immediate concern. Here’s a better approach, which would satisfy visitor needs and still be legally compliant:

  • Place actionable items at the top of the page
  • Summarize important legal points, then link to complete documents if full legal text is necessary
  • Omit information that isn’t legally required or relevant to residents
  • Format copy with headers and bullets so it is easy to scan

When planning a website redesign, the City of Provo, Utah reviewed all website content, navigation, layout and design. They looked at every section and page, asking: “Does this fulfill our mission? Are residents asking for this information? How can we make it more meaningful?” As a result, Provo streamlined their website from 4,000 pages to 400, and had a more usable, customer-centric site.

  1. Just have each department update its own content

 A successful content approach puts residents first and departmental needs second. When a local government website is a patchwork of content from multiple departments, the result is a fragmented customer experience. For example, when three individual departments offer services that require payments, a distributed model can result in three separate payment pages with different logins, layouts and naming conventions. This creates a confusing, disjointed experience for a resident who has little-to-no interest in how their government office is organized. They want to get things done quickly without having to learn different jargon, processes and passwords for each interaction. A seamless experience that corresponds to the resident’s needs and interests would look much different and produce superior results. When processes work well, residents complain less, engage more and have a better overall opinion of their leaders.

  1. Social media can replace our website

 As social media gain traction in all walks of life, some local government leaders are considering abandoning their websites and relying on social media as their online presence. While social media plays a key role in marketing and communicating with residents, it is just one part of a digital communications strategy. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are exceptional channels to inform the public about available services, but they simply cannot replace the functionality of a robust website through which citizens can pay bills, apply for jobs and obtain permits.  In addition, social media sites are controlled by third parties, who can change policies, algorithms and advertising approaches at any time. A shift in any of these arenas could leave users with additional costs for continued access, a real problem for local governments struggling with limited budgets and compliance issues.  A truly effective digital strategy is multichannel, utilizing the instant connections of social media along with the service delivery, transparency and control of a website.

  1. Having an app constitutes a mobile strategy

This past year, our Vision analytics revealed that 33 percent of all local government website traffic was mobile – a year-over-year increase of 27 percent. As this trend continues, local governments must be ready to serve customers across multiple devices, operating systems and screen sizes. This is perhaps the most pressing usability issue of our time.  While mobile apps frequently emerge as attractive options, a comprehensive mobile strategy cannot be achieved with apps alone. Current stats show that most local gov website users are infrequent visitors with specific goals in mind. They are not likely to know that an app exists for their task, let alone download and keep it.

Creating a mobile-friendly site that automatically resizes for any device using Responsive Web Design provides an effective alternative. Responsively designed websites allow visitors to have a successful mobile experience without downloading anything.  The City of West Hollywood, Calif., for example, recognized the growth and significance of their mobile traffic and when it came time to redesign their site, made a concerted effort to improve the user experience. In addition to selecting a CMS platform that was responsive, they worked with Vision to create a customized mobile-friendly home page that catered to this important audience, successfully maximizing the capabilities of their platform without designing a separate site or app.

Key Take Away – Put Customers First

Looking at an organization’s web presence from the resident’s perspective gives leaders the opportunity to evaluate its effectiveness and uncover areas for improvement.  Can residents accomplish necessary tasks with ease? Can they easily understand important information? Can they access services from any device? If the answer to any of these is “no,” then there’s great opportunity for improvement. Keep in mind that the cost and effort associated with improvements will be offset by greater citizen satisfaction and engagement. Dramatic improvements can be realized when the resident experience is your first priority.

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