September 3, 2013 By Matt Williams
Austin, Texas; Alameda County, Calif.; and Tennessee are first-place winners in annual rankings released Tuesday, Sept. 3, that identify state and local government’s top websites.
The 2013 Best of the Web awards program showcases governments whose websites demonstrate innovation, usability and functionality for users. Best of the Web honorees have sites that display effective governmental efficiency and service delivery. Submissions from U.S. cities, counties and states were judged by executives from the Center for Digital Government, along with a panel of past Best of the Web winners. A complete list of winners is below.
The Center for Digital Government is owned by e.Republic, the parent company of Government Technology.
Not long after the birth of the Internet, Austin became one of the first cities in the U.S. to launch its own website. Over the years, though, the website slowly became obsolete and outdated, due in part to a series of false starts and ineffective RFPs that would’ve brought upgrades. The old website languished unchanged since 2002.
Austin, though, has proven that progress can move quickly. In 2011, after garnering design input from the public and a vendor, Austin’s IT staff rebuilt the website in-house from the ground up using Drupal, an open source content management system. The redesign earned Austin a fifth-place finish in the 2012 Best of the Web awards. A year later, the community with a burgeoning reputation as a hub for the tech industry now has a first-class government website to match — and a No. 1 ranking.
“I don’t think we’ll ever rest again,” said CIO Stephen Elkins about the city’s focus on agile development. Austin is continuing to tweak and modify its award-winning website upon the core tenets of being search-centric, data rich and open source. Elkins envisions that Austin’s website could soon become a true one-stop shop for the information a citizen needs while living in the city.
The website features a search field in the middle of the page, and results are returned via Solr, an enterprise, open source search platform. The website’s design is minimalist, with color-coded tabs and categories helping the user easily navigate to different pages without confusion — and without needing to know how city departments are organized. It’s designed to be intuitive, not hierarchical. The city’s mobile website, which like the main website, is built to be responsive to a variety of touchscreen sizes and devices, echoes the same categories.
The website puts many essential city services on the main page, while calling out Austin’s transparency website, electronic bill pay, 311, and other main features with simple, easy-to-read links.
Staff also have worked hard to improve the website’s back end, evidenced by search results that are aggregated from the city’s various websites as well as accessibility features for disabled users. Austin’s IT department hopes to soon contribute ready-to-use Web modules back to the open source community, and has begun discussions that could lead to the inclusion and integration of more data from Texas state government and other localities on Austin’s open government portal.
It’s no accident that Tennessee’s new website bears a strong resemblance to the distinctive panel design in the Windows 8 operating system. Web traffic to TN.gov from mobile devices increased to 19 percent of the overall total at the beginning of 2013, so Gov. Bill Haslam’s office and NIC — the e-government services company that manages the website in partnership with the state — decided to focus the website’s redesign on mobile usability.
“But we didn’t want the high-tech, modern use of panels taking over the feel of the site,” said David Dahle, the general manager of NIC’s Tennessee business unit. “We tried to lay the modern look on top of a vintage feel.”
The panel design is a natural fit for responsive design, and it has a cool factor that is unusual for a government website. Dahle is quick to point out that the panels also are functional, allowing the user to quickly access a wealth of content in just one or two clicks. Videos, maps, social channels and other media also can be displayed directly inside the panels, as can links to related pages.
Tennessee’s design, which the Center for Digital Government said is innovative and “cutting edge,” has been extended into agency websites and applications, such as systems for foster parent verification and handgun applications. Dahle said the consistent look across pages builds trust when citizens need to enter their personal information online.
The panels aren’t the only feature Tennessee has worked on. The website uses geolocation to display press releases and announcements that are most pertinent to the user’s city or county. The website’s search field includes a drop-down menu of autocompleted results, and a quick menu adjusts the website’s font size. Citizens can access the state’s open data portal from the homepage.
“The work to create a sitewide design was pretty significant, but it is an important part of a consistent user experience,” said Mark Cate, the governor’s chief of staff. “We designed a template that harmonized with the new design and customized it to meet agencies' needs in terms of content and structure. Then, all the agencies went digging into their pages, reorganizing and rearranging to put their content into the template. It took several months, but the result is great, and sitewide redesigns will be easier in the future because all of the templates use the same core files.”
Alameda County’s website is a good example of how a significant amount of information can be presented cleanly and intuitively within a main website, mobile website and mobile apps.
A big part of the county’s strategy leans on social media; buttons for the city’s Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest accounts are prominently displayed across the middle of the homepage. There are also podcasts, RSS feeds and a sign-up button for email notifications. Navigation on the main website is clean, logical and simplified, and menus don’t intrude into content areas. Meanwhile, the mobile website boils down the content into just seven categories, which streamlines the experience even further.
There’s also a forms center with an easy way to search and filter forms, as well as organization charts for every department in the county. One of the website’s tabs also features the top 10 documents, Web search terms and most popular Web pages. Alameda County also has hosted two hackathons in recent months, and some of those apps have been integrated into the website.
“We’ve focused a lot on our citizen engagement with our open data initiative — I think that’s very fresh and current,” said Tim Dupuis, the interim director of the Alameda County Information Technology Department and the county’s interim registrar of voters. “Coupled with social media and how aggressively we’re going after the mobile apps space and self- service — all of these things combine to make something that really engages our public.”
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