WHY STAND IN LINE when you can go online and get what you need almost immediately? From letting residents renew their driver’s licenses to providing a forum to debate city budgets, state and local government Web sites have significantly expanded the services they provide to residents.
The best state and local government sites offer convenience, fully executable services and a lot of information in a portal package that rivals the most sophisticated corporate Web sites. What do these successful entities have in common? Some say it’s usability; others say it’s the range of services. But all agree that there’s no turning back.
The best sites have made a big push toward providing useful online services, such as tax filing and vehicle registration, says Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, Providence, R.I., and developer of the insidepolitics.org Web site, which published a report on the best of the Web for federal, state and local governments. He believes the usability of sites is a very important quality, as is a uniform look across all agencies.
“Information needs to be presented in a way that is easy to navigate and to find what you’re looking for,” West points out.
Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Government, agrees. “The best sites have a tremendous amount of applications online,” she says. “In the past, there would be a large photo of an elected official and some other stuff, but not much in the way of useful information or services. Now, [the Web’s] become much more the fabric of how people do business with government.”
A major goal of government Web sites is to make everything more cohesive. “In the past, you’d have a main portal for the state Web site, but when you’d click off to one of the departments, it would be completely different, leaving many visitors to wonder where they were,” Robinett says. “Because all the agencies used to have their own Web masters, most of those sites were developed independently, with no one determining a consistent look and feel.”
Robinett adds that establishing that consistent look and feel “takes a governor or mayor saying ‘this is what we need to do’ and getting people to collaborate. Utah was the first state that did that several years ago, and now it’s becoming more common.”
“With 20 or more city departments creating their own home pages, getting a common look and feel is key,” says Christine O’Connor, acting chief information officer and IT director for the city of Tucson, Ariz. “We focus on usability and knowledge management, making sure that our customers are getting the information they need as quickly as possible.”
But the work isn’t finished, nor will it ever be. “It’s a draft that’s constantly under revision,” she says. “We’ve had a Web site for a decade. The first push was to get independent departments to work together; then we started looking at services.”
Richard Thompson, chief information officer for maine.gov—which has been at the top of the best of the Web lists for the past few years—says that the key strategy is to provide access to those services that citizens need. His team looked at applications that were ultimately cost-effective compared with other delivery mechanisms.
At maine.gov, citizens can register vehicles, renew driver’s licenses, report vehicle accidents and access the sex-offender Web site. “We identified services that are important to our citizens and tried to get those up very early,” Thompson says.
In addition, maine.gov takes pride in the accessibility it provides for residents with disabilities. “We take making our Web site handicap-accessible very seriously, particularly [for those] with visual disabilities,” he says. “We provide them with the same kind of access to services that everyone else has.”
However, many city and state sites are still lacking in that regard. As of September 2004, only 37 percent of state sites and 21 percent of city sites met the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) disability guidelines, according to the state and federal eGovernment report published by Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy.
Many sites fall into the trap of trying to make things clever, rather than usable. “Making a Web site too data-intensive and too flashy garners negative citizen feedback,” says Robinett of the Center for Digital Government. The best approach, she says, is to look for a basic common denominator and avoid demos that offer sizzle rather than substance.
She cites another common mistake: building a beautiful site with nothing under the hood.
“Sites that aren’t doing well don’t have many online services,” says West of the Taubman Center. “They’re not taking advantage of the interactive capability of the Internet, and they haven’t made much progress in terms of easy navigation, usability and offering fully executable services online—not just downloading an application and sending it in.”
The lack of a customer-centric approach is a major pitfall, according to Tucson’s O’Connor. “Many cities organize and design their sites according to their own internal organization,” she notes, “so you have to know which department handles what in order to navigate the site.
“Governments are ethnocentric in that they view a Web site the way they understand the organization, versus how it would be understood by the customer—the citizens.” Cities need to be in the information business, so it’s crucial for them to recognize that the process is iterative and never ending and must start with the customer, O’Connor adds.
That might appear to be a foregone conclusion. So why are a number of government sites not living up to expectations? Robinett of the Center for Digital Government points to leadership issues. “Someone has got to make it a priority and define its importance,” she stresses.
Since 1977, Tucson’s O’Connor has been very involved in efforts to make it easier for citizens to deal with government. “Something as simple as the phone book is very complicated if you don’t know government structure,” she says.
“For instance,” O’Connor continues, “in Tucson Valley, we’re part of a county. The city doesn’t do certain things, such as animal control; Pima County handles that. In addition, the school districts are independent jurisdictions, but many people wouldn’t know that if they weren’t familiar with the area.
“That need to make our structure transparent to our citizens has always been out there. With the Web, it just got easier.”
Focus groups can help government agencies find out what people need, says Robinett of the Center for Digital Government. She notes that West Virginia used a focus group and learned that having all phone books online was a top priority for its citizens. “Scrap what you think everybody wants and ask people what they want,” she advises.
“There’s so much information that developing a navigational structure that people can understand is a difficult, ongoing task,” says Mark Taylor, the Web master of the city of Tucson site. “We’re always evaluating the feedback we get to see if there’s a way to improve that [navigational] path. We’re also looking at purchasing some usability software so that we can do our own testing, in order to get a better idea of how to lead people to the right place.
“We bring people in and put them on the site and give them specific tasks, such as finding a meeting agenda for the mayor. We then track the keystrokes and see how they’re getting there. That way, we can make sure we’ve developed the best possible path for them to get to that information.”
Most experts agree that while the majority of sites are improving, it’s an ongoing process to keep up with current technology and the needs of the citizens. But certain sites may be lagging behind not because of a lack of interest or effort, but because of a lack of funds.
Robinett of the Center for Digital Government recommends that states and localities that have limited funding establish public/private partnerships. “It’s a shared risk model where the state will partner with someone in the private sector,” she explains. “The partner builds the site, and both share in the revenue in some form.”
Another way to work around limited funds is to leverage existing infrastructure. For example, the city of Des Moines uses the state of Iowa’s infrastructure. In Florida, all the county treasurers collaborated to develop myflorida.com, leveraging the state’s infrastructure. And in Georgia, all local sites can piggyback off the state site.
In the final analysis, creating and maintaining a Web site is about being creative with what you have and understanding that a site is a work in progress. Maine’s Thompson points out that state and local governments need to put emphasis on both the development of their Web site and on the ongoing care of that site.
“It’s an asset that we can’t do without anymore,” Thompson says of maine.gov. “Now, we want to go after services that aren’t right on the tip of everybody’s tongue, like aircraft registration, communicating with citizens [via alerts] and providing more access for the disabled so that all citizens have an opportunity to do business with state government.
“We need to identify those services, prioritize them and invest in them.”
The Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Government looks at these five areas to determine a Web site’s ranking in its annual Best of the Web survey.
1. Privacy and security notices: They represent legal information that needs to be on all sites.
2. Accessibility: How is that handled, and how can residents with disabilities access services online?
3. Usefulness: The number of applications, functionality and innovation on the site.
4. Innovation: Who’s done something cutting-edge? For example, Maine launched its eDemocracy portal, and Indiana launched “There oughta be a bill,” which allows citizens to suggest bills for consideration.
5. Common look and feel: What can visitors do on the site, and are services easy to find?