Ashley Fruechting is Sr. Director of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships for El Segundo, Calif.-based Vision Internet, a leader in government website development with more than 700 government, non-profit and education clients across the U.S. and Canada.
We’re Not Selling Toasters Here!
Running a government website comes with a unique set of goals that distinguishes it from the private sector. You’re not trying to capture leads to drive sales. Instead, you’ve got a greater mission: delivering online services and information to your resident-customers whenever and wherever they want them.
In recent years, expectations for what we can do online have shifted dramatically, and expectations for government websites have also changed. Residents want to be able to get important information and perform necessary tasks on any device, around the clock. They expect quick answers to their questions and expect their representatives to be digitally connected.
Who Holds the Keys?
Whether you’re writing code, writing content, posting it to the website or overseeing other editors – you’re on the front lines of an ongoing struggle to meet these ever-growing customer expectations, keeping your site coherent and effective. The widespread introduction of Content Management Systems (CMS) opened the doors for virtually anyone in an agency to update content on the website. While this alleviated technical barriers, it introduced the new issues of strategy, governance and quality control. Who should “own” the website?
“We’ll Just Have all the Departments Manage Their Own Pages” Doesn’t Cut It
When confronting the “Who should ‘own’ the website” question, municipalities all too often fall into the trap of not having anyone ultimately in charge, and moving completely to a distributed model. While this works well from a workload perspective, it often results in a fragmented customer experience. When three individual departments offer services that require payments, for example, a distributed model can result in three separate payment pages with different logins, layouts and naming conventions. This creates a confusing, disjointed experience for residents who have little-to-no insight or interest in how their government office is organized. They want to get things done quickly without having to learn different jargon, processes and passwords for each interaction.
You Need a Strategy
It’s not uncommon to try to manage a website purely as a technology project. It makes sense: robust technology allows many processes to be handled online and many elements overlap with other technology initiatives. However, websites differ from other technology projects in that their purpose is almost exclusively to serve external customers. Accenture recently released a survey that sought to uncover what obstacles citizens encountered as they tried to use digital services from government. Here’s what they found:
- 54% of citizens cited poor website organization as a key obstacle to using digital government services
- 50% of citizens said not knowing what government services were available to them online was their primary barrier to using a government site
- 22% of citizens reported commonly finding different or conflicting information on different sites or in different areas of the same site was a primary obstacle
These are not issues that can be solved with technology alone. Even in the absence of a formal communications department, agencies must couple their technical efforts with a marketing and communications focus. Not only will this ensure their intended users are aware of the tools available to them, but it also enables them to effectively leverage the technology. This then translates into higher engagement and satisfaction with officials.
Getting Down to the Fundamentals – Design for the Customer
So how do you “communicate effectively” with or without a communications department? There are concrete steps you can take to make improvements:
- Write copy with clear, plain language
- Organize content according to visitor needs
- Emphasize key messages front and center
All of these can be grouped under the umbrella of “content strategy.” If you’re not familiar with this concept or aren’t sure your content is written well, Vision has put together a guide to walk you through how to develop a content strategy: A Hands-On Guide to Content Strategy.
Listen to Your Residents – Make it Simple
Your residents are never going to call you and say, “The content strategy on your website needs work!” However, you can bet they will call in to complain if they have trouble finding important information or completing a necessary process. Even if all the answers are on your site somewhere, they won’t be willing to dig endlessly if the correct path isn’t easily visible. Many will pick up the phone at the first sign of trouble. After all, they’re on your site to do something important!
Do a little digging and find out what your citizens are complaining about. It’s a great way to take the temperature of your residents and find out where there’s room for improvement.
92% of the respondents in that Accenture study said that improved digital services would positively impact their view of government. Looking at the bigger picture, fixing those digital pain points for your residents can have a big impact on their overall view of your team.
Partnership is the Key to Success
Getting back to the initial question – “Who Holds the Keys?” The short answer is everyone. Without strong technology your website can’t operate. Without well written, well organized content your website can’t communicate. You need both.
Whatever department ultimately owns the website in your organization, a collaborative “customer-first” approach should be the guiding principal. It doesn’t matter who your team captain is, as long as they’re dedicated to this ultimate goal.
If you’re struggling with this issue within your municipality, or just want to learn more about how others confront common website challenges, plan to join us for our upcoming Innovation Academy Webinar: What Local Governments Get Wrong About Websites (And How to Get it Right). The session will feature a panel of local government leaders who will share their practical insights and experience in tackling these issues within their organizations.