Don’t Make These Mistakes with Your Government Website Design

Written by Deb McNew

Your citizens have high expectations. They want on-demand access to news, information, resources, and self-service tools to help them lead comfortable, and engaged lives in your community. You have high expectations too, and they all surround giving your citizens what they want—and more. The foundation of your citizen engagement strategy should be your municipal website. The problem, however, is that despite the best intentions, building the type of digital experiences that citizens want can be challenging. If not properly guided, it can be easy for local governments to fall into the common traps that too often mar the reputations of public sector websites.

The government website experts at GovTech recently set out to assess why so many government websites fail to live-up to citizen expectations. What they learned, was that government agencies never intend to build sub-par solutions. Rather, they fall into the trap of making the most common, avoidable mistakes. Before your next website redesign, take the time to learn from the research provided by GovTech, and our advice for avoiding the most common mistakes of government website design.

The Issue: Ignoring Your Own Standards

According to GovTech, “The First Mistake some governments make is they ignore their own guidance and standards.” Many communities set out with a citizen-centric strategy for building a user-friendly, highly functional website that will allow citizens to self-service their needs. Without the proper platform in place, however, the importance of building such functionality can become minimized in the planning and implementation process.

It can be easy to fall back on the mentality of “just move what we have and we’ll clean it up later,” rather than holding staff to the new standards for the site from the beginning of the planning process. Maintaining those standards is critical, however, in offering the type of citizen communication tool that will be effective in stimulating engagement.

How to Overcome it: Choose an Easy-to-Manage Platform

Even if you choose a content management system (CMS) that offers the ability to customize self-service features such as online forms, a dynamic facility reservation system, and alert notifications, it won’t matter if it’s too cumbersome for your busy staff to manage. Before you choose a CMS platform, ask to see a demo of the functionality. If a system requires HTML and Java Script coding experience to make the types of customizations you anticipate needing regularly, it won’t help you meet your goals.

The Issue: Organizing Content Based on Your Administrative Set-Up

According to GovTech, “…many cities struggle to build citizen-centric sites where information is organized around user needs rather than agency needs.” The ability to quickly search your website to find desired information should be a primary goal for local governments looking to offer citizens a functional, informative digital experience. An easy trap that local governments fall into when developing the architecture and content hierarchy for their website, is in thinking in terms of how the administration is formed from a department and service perspective, and not how citizens think about their local government. More importantly, enough consideration and prioritization isn’t placed on what information citizens are searching for, and how many steps it will take them to get to the most commonly needed site pages.

How to Overcome it: Strategic Consulting

A government website design partner should offer strategic consulting at the initiation of your project. All decisions regarding content hierarchy should be data-informed and should draw upon your current website utilization metrics. Heatmapping can often be another tool used to help define the content navigation that will best service your citizens’ needs.

eBook: Guide to Local Government Analytics

The Issue: Ignoring Best Practices from the Private Sector

According to GovTech, “While some governments commit to security standards or accessibility guidelines—possibly at higher rates than the private sector—they tend to overlook best practices on design and performance.” Even beyond aesthetic design principles, too often local government websites aren’t designed with such important factors in mind as page load speeds, mobile optimization, readability, and SEO optimization.

How to Overcome it: Assess Your Current Website

Before redesigning your website, you need to understand where your current website may be letting you down so that you know exactly what areas to improve. Focus groups and user testing can help validate opportunities for improvements, as can third party assessments. Click the image below for a free-third party assessment from CivicPlus®.

Free third party website performance evaluation report

The Issue: Stagnant Sites and Outdated Content

According to GovTech, some governments “…keep websites around long past their expiration date.” Too often when we partner with a new client, they tell us that their greatest concern is that their website’s content is hosted on an antiquated platform that few people know how to manage, that no longer reflects the community’s brand, and that displays outdated, incorrect information.

This was the case in Santa Rosa, California before they built their CivicEngage® website. According to Eric McHenry, City of Santa Rosa Director and Chief Information Officer, “Our previous website was built using an old product, on a platform that wasn’t mobile responsive. It had an antique look and feel. We needed to modernize the look and create something that was new and relevant, and that was easier for our editors to maintain on the back-end.”

>>Click here to read the full story behind Santa Rosa’s website transformation.

Another common mistake we see are communities that want to place far too much information on their websites, especially as older websites continue to have more and more content added to them over time. While transparency and open government are essential standards, it’s important to continually assess what is being offered on your website and ensure you are only offering the content that citizens want and need regularly. It’s also important to organize content in a way that will ensure citizens can find what they’re looking for easily.

How to Overcome it: Choose a Partner that Offers Regular Redesigns

When choosing a government website design partner, you should choose a solution provider that is committed to constant evolution of its platform and product offering. Also choose a partner that offers clients the opportunity to redesign their websites at regular intervals. With an understanding that technology changes rapidly, and that the needs of a community evolve just as quickly, you owe it to your citizens to make sure your municipal website keeps pace with changes in the community and the needs of its residents.

As part of the redesign process, assess the amount of content you plan to migrate. Strategically look at the purpose that every piece of content will serve to help reduce the site’s overall amount of content and ensure usability does not suffer. For each piece of content that you’re considering migrating to your new website, ask yourself, “Do I get more than one request per month for this?” Then, look at your current website data to see how frequently the item has been accessed. If it’s not frequently requested, consider other ways to make the information available.

If you already know your current website needs a redesign, download our local government website redesign toolkit. It offers everything you need to get started from a sample budget, to timeline tips, to security and hosting advice. Click the image below to download your free copy.

Local-Government-Website-Redesign-Planning-Toolkit