Monday, July 19, 2010

What Makes a Government Website Great?

In 2006

The National Policy Research Council (NPRC --, a nonprofit think tank, examined the Web presence of the 50 states and all 38,987 counties, municipalities and townships in the U.S. An exhaustive search found 11,227 official state and local government Web sites. Trained NPRC reviewers visited each Web site to assess points for 25 features in seven categories: usability, citizen responsiveness, accessibility for disabled visitors, information tools, online procurement, job opportunities, and interactive permits and payments.

Out of all those websites they chose Montgomery County, Maryland's website as the best for counties over 500,000 residents and City of Fresno, California's website as the best city website with a population over 500,000.  This year Montgomery County, Maryland was named the best county website by the Digital Counties Survey sponsored by eRepublic and the National Association of Counties.

The NPRC generally gave the best scores to
Web sites on which a wide range of services could easily be found on the home page instead of being buried several pages deep, said Robert McArthur, the NPRC’s e-government project director.
 According to McArthur, one problem with many government Web sites is that they’re organized by department, whereas most users want to accomplish a task — like paying a water bill — without necessarily knowing which department is involved. “The best Web sites offered on the home page a menu of all government services regardless of department,” he said.

Another problem uncovered by the NPRC study is outdated information on official government Web sites. “Either maintain its currency and accuracy, or shut it down,” McArthur said. “Bad information is worse than no information.”

The best websites also have suggestion boxes that allow users to propose fixes to improve the government site.  Response time to citizen requests was another factor in how much the site was actually used.

So how does the City of San Antonio's website stack up? It's pretty good,  the main page has this drop down menu

I want to...

 To get a list of the entire services offered, users can click on Request Help With... Other Services for a quick reference guide that overall is written in fairly plain language.  There are a few links that require some explanation, I don't even know what they mean, so I'm pretty sure the average citizen wouldn't know.  Both CRAG and Brownfields take you to the Housing and Neighborhood services page but there is no reference to either one once you reach that page. 

Another problem I noticed under Find/Learn About was when I clicked the link to Boards & Commision Agendas the link page said I was unauthorized to view the page.  If this list of links is meant for the general public then a restricted link should not be on it.

Yes I know, boring old me I checked all the links to see if they worked.  Under Pay For... the Municipal Court Payments doesn't always work, sometimes I get a page load error and sometimes I get an invalid security certificate warning.  There is a link to make suggestions for the budget on the scrolling link but no suggestion box for users of the website, in fact under contact us you can send an email for technical problems only.

The department links are somewhat spotty, some are better are than others, and there are some dead links that need to be cleaned up.  Response time for online 311 (complaints for dumping, junk cars, drainage problems, etc.)  is good, two of the city engineers came out the same day I posted a complaint about drainage problems.

In 2007 the Culture and Policy Institute at UTSA conducted a Community Survey.  They found that
City-wide, many participants had no opinion about the City's web-based payment services (40% no opinion), ease of obtaining garage sale permits (53% no opinion), obtaining other permits (61% no opinion), and the City's job training programs (46%). This suggests that many residents are either unaware of the existence of, or have had no experience with, these services.
There's no visitor counter on the main page, so it's hard to know how much traffic the website receives now, but the city has Facebook and Twitter feeds that may help to raise community awareness.  If you ever use the city website, write me a comment about your experience.

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