9 ways to make your government website better (Part 1)

By / Jan 10, 2013

I spend a lot of time on government websites.

I probably hold the world record for number of government website visits.

Having recently gone on a whirlwind, marathon tour of the .gov web, I was a little more than taken aback by what I perceive to be standard web practices that are consistently not being used by government.

In an effort to help others, here’s a random, whimsical list of recommendations I have for government website designers, developers and social media managers to help make the web user experience better for citizens and journalists (I’m calling this “Part 1″ because I may revisit this in the future with additional recommendations).

Be responsive. Any government that doesn’t incorporate responsive web design into their websites from now going forward is not thinking strategically. This is not a complicated request of your web team or vendor, especially if you’re launching a new site. Just tell them “we want responsive design.” Before you develop a mobile website or application, invest that effort and resources into integrating responsive web design into your web presence. This will save you time, money and the citizen experience will be seamless and much more enjoyable.

Don’t create separate websites for agencies and senior-level executives. I’ve often clicked on a link to an agency or executive-level official only to find myself in a completely different place on the Internet. The user experience is disjointed, and it’s a waste of money to develop an entire web project for what could be folded into a uniform interface and development environment.

Get a content management system. It’s clear many government websites still are using static pages. Adopting a content management system not only separates the design from the content, but it forces you into a different mindset with respect to delivering information to citizens. If money is an issue, there are a number of world-class, free content management systems you can use.

Create a /social page. Everyone is using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and other social media platforms. Government is no exception. Create a single page on your website (yourdomain.gov/social) that serves an agency/executive directory with all related social media accounts, including email subscriptions and RSS feeds. Give users one page to see all the ways they can connect with you. Make this accessible from every page of your website.

Incorporate reliable search. This is a little tougher, but in a world of Google, most web users these days are search-savvy, and it will be the first option used to find information (especially if you site isn’t well-organized). As with content management systems, there are freely-available search options to incorporate into your site relatively easy (and free).

URL/social media naming conventions for senior positions should be generic. When I see an elected official using a URL naming convention that incorporates his or her name, I see a lost opportunity for continuity. As a citizen, if I’ve bookmarked your page or followed your account on social media platforms, I lose a critical connection with government once you leave office or move to a different position. It’s fine for an official to have his or her own account, but there should always be an official, regularly updated companion.

Create an agency contact page. Similar to /social, an accessible /contact page that includes agency listings with email, phone, mail contact is critical, especially for journalists. As with /social, make this accessible from every page of your website.

Give Flickr photos some love. Photos are one of the most powerful ways government can communicate with citizens. They’re also a great resource for bloggers, journalists and online news outlets. When uploading to Flickr (or any other photo-sharing platform), make sure to flag as government work or no rights reserved so that others know they can freely repurpose (most government works are, but it’s confusing to see “All rights reserved”). Also, be sure to add titles and descriptions (including date and location) for context.

Make it easy to subscribe via email. Email is still a valuable way to connect with citizens. Create a simple subscription form and request just an email address. The more fields you add, the less likely someone will subscribe. One recent form required name, email, phone and address. You don’t need any of that.

I would love to hear from others on best practices or ideas not being leveraged but should be.

I'm the founder of GovFresh, CivicMeet and co-creator of GovPress, the WordPress theme for government. I'm also a strategic consultant for CivicActions and NuCivic, both focused on bringing agile, open source and open data solutions to government. I also serve on the steering committee for Open Source for America. Connect with me on Twitter or email me at luke@govfresh.com.

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Topics: · Gov 2.0

  • http://twitter.com/kristyfifelski Kristy Fifelski

    Great tips, Luke! A few other suggestions I have are: In addition to the /social page, include social icons on the homepage; incorporate social sharing buttons; consider USA Search as your free search tool for government; include your primary physical address in the footer on the homepage; make web standards-based menus that work even w/ Javascript turned off. 

  • californiakara

    Great article, Luke. Highly recco adding in: Speak human. Talk to your users in a natural language, the way people really speak to each other. Don’t get caught up in bureaucratic semantics – in other words, keep it real. I wrote about this on the Project MyGov blog: “Humans create websites for other humans to read. So when did we start talking to people like they’re robots?”

  • John Davey

    >> Create an agency contact page.

    As both a webmaster of a township and a regular user of municipal sites for my day time job, I think this simple point should be number one. It is surprising how many sites have pretty pictures of the town on the front page, but the phone number is buried somewhere on another page. I would go a step further: Contact information for at least the main office ought to be on the front page and maybe on every page.

  • Brad

    I disagree with your second point.  Fire and Police especially often have the heaviest traffic, lots of content, and the need for control of their pages.  Can’t tell you how many times other people I speak with complain about being on the “city site” and can’t get IT or the webmaster to respond and do anything when they want changes made or they hate the site design they are stuck on.  Many times stand alone sites make sense, especially for city departments that have a lot of traffic and want to have their own design and flexibility. 

    Just like it often does not make sense to lump everyone onto the same city facebook or twitter page. There are different needs for flexibility, traffic, content, colors, feel, etc…. Independence is important to identity and creativity and can be achieved at a very low cost when done properly across many city departments.

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