Still think the best government websites have the best images and content specific to each community? Think again.
Ten years ago, government websites featured pictures and designs intended to help the community “brand” itself online, reflecting a desire of the project’s officials to provide a visual representation of the organization and community. On top of that, government websites were – and still are – flush with specific content about the community, like a detailed municipal history, organizational values and ethics codes, and bios on each of the elected officials.
Every community considers itself unique and original in its own way; however from town to town, city to city, county to county, and beyond, government organizations exist for the same reason: to provide services to their citizens. For the most part, every government organization provides the same services, and citizens’ interactions with those services are increasingly expected to be completed digitally.
Today’s “brand” for government and public organizations online is all about service and meeting citizens where they are, rather than telling a story about the community itself. Today’s standards of government website design are about maximizing a citizen’s time on the site – get in, get it done, get out.
What if your organization’s online “brand” had more to do with intuitive functionality, mobility, searchability, and social media? For today’s citizen, this is what matters more than the unique design and content on the page. Here’s how:
- Intuitive Functionality. Citizens think of their interactions with government in terms of transactions – getting a license, paying a utility bill, applying for a permit, submitting a service request, etc. Any government website that does not a) offer as many online transactions as possible, and b) make these transactions the focal point of their website design is falling behind.
In West Hartford, Connecticut, users now have the ability to easily obtain overnight parking permits online, allowing them to park on the street without receiving a ticket. Providing this service online is a fantastic example of moving a service online that saves time, money, and effort for all parties.
- Mobility. Back in 2010, government websites were being designed so all content on the homepage would display entirely “above the fold,” to use an old newspaper term. The logic was that website users would not scroll, and thus, the content at the bottom of the page would get lost. This was true when users were primarily accessing the web on desktops, but not anymore. The overwhelming insertion of mobile devices and social media into our daily lives has conditioned us to scroll, because that’s what we do on our phones.
Take the example of the city of Fullerton, California, which not only is responsive to meet the user’s device, but a ton of content exists on the homepage to give the end user – most likely on a mobile device – the most important functionality options on the first screen.
- Searchability. Google has changed the way we seek out information online. Rather than searching for keywords, we ask questions, usually by starting with “How do I…?” Some of the best government websites incorporate Google’s example of a search box front and center on the homepage to encourage search, like Independence, Missouri, or Louisville, Kentucky, while others tackle searchability additionally through their navigation, like Carlsbad, California. These methods negate a citizen’s need to understand their government’s departmental structure and which department handles which services.
Governments must pay direct attention to designing their websites in such a way that users are able to find the information they’re looking for as quickly as possible, without needing to know the internal structure of the organization itself.
- Social Media – Is your government organization using Snapchat yet? If not, you will. Why? Because Snapchat recently surpassed Twitter in daily usage.
Don’t believe your organization will use Snapchat? Let’s not forget the dialogue surrounding government and Facebook and Twitter back in 2008. Many government officials swore their organizations would never be on these social platforms, and guess what? Public sector adoption and usage of social media is now commonplace.
Social media for government is about meeting citizens where they are. Government cannot expect citizens to come to them. Going to a government website for news and information is not top of mind for most people, but scrolling through a social media feed is. Governments must branch away from their websites if they want to connect with their community and deliver relevant information.
So what about those elected officials’ bios? They simply are not necessary. No one reads them, so they only add clutter. The most important information for elected officials is their contact information and voting record.
The design, the services offered, and every piece of content of a government’s online presence should be judged on its value to the citizen and his or her ability to complete a task or transaction with their government in as timely and seamless a manner as possible.
This is the defining reality of government websites moving forward.