In December 2015 Accenture published research findings that revealed a disconnect between what users expect from government websites and what they get. As web technology continues to advance, government websites have historically been behind the times. However, as the internet becomes a ubiquitous part of daily life, most users have come to expect the “Amazon experience” on whatever site they visit—including public sector websites—and too often those sites don’t meet expectations.
This is especially true for users accessing the internet on mobile devices. The number of mobile-optimized government websites is woefully low. In fact, a recent study by Pew Research Center revealed more than 40 percent of Americans access government websites on mobile devices, but less than 30% of those websites are mobile optimized, including the four most popular government websites!
This presents a huge opportunity for government agencies, states and municipalities to better serve constituents with a deeper investment in their digital presence. Too often, sensitivity to the out-of-pocket cost of a website redesign is a rationalization not to improve an agency’s web presence, but this argument is counterintuitive. A high-functioning website quickly proves to be a wise use of taxpayer dollars through improved delivery of pertinent online services for citizens, greater transparency and a more positive perception of—and engagement with—government overall.
A government entity is a brand like any other. A website is a direct reflection of that brand and can have a significant impact on user perception. Even the most prestigious brand can unwittingly generate customer dissatisfaction by having a sub-par website. That’s why an investment in digital presence is critically important for both the private and public sector. Residents are more likely to participate in local events, remain engaged and become more informed about local news and municipal, state or federal issues if a government website is user friendly, well organized and reflects the same brand attributes it exhibits through offline channels.
To illustrate both the tangible and intangible benefits an improved government website can have on public perception, let’s take a few minutes to review SAI’s recent redesign of Anne Arundel County, Maryland’s website, which launched in February 2016.
SAI surveyed more than a thousand Anne Arundel County (AACO) residents to gain insight into AACO’s website from a customer service perspective. One of the biggest pain points reported was a lack of understanding of the services available to residents via the web and how to access those services. This finding is consistent with Accenture’s research, which states that more than half of respondents surveyed said that the biggest obstacle to connected services is simply not knowing what services can be accessed online.
Excerpts from the AACO survey:
“Poor menu structure [makes it] difficult to find the information I need”
“Too many clicks to get to what I am looking for. Things should be easier to find”
“I wish I was able to search programs in AA County”
“The site. . .is more about the county and not about what you can do on the site or the services available”
By providing easier access to all available services, AACO is able to better serve its residents. The homepage now features a search box (shown below) that allows users to easily search for any service or program, with a link to view all services and programs that can then be filtered by department or action.
If, for example, a resident wants to pay a red light camera ticket, there are multiple ways to find this service. A user can search for the service, view all services and sort by the “pay” action, or use the main site search to find the correct page on the site. Once on the “pay red light camera tickets” page (shown below), a user can learn how to pay the fine, whom to contact with questions and request a court date online. All service and program pages have a consistent layout to allow users to easily navigate the site, so they know what to expect and where to find information on each page.Consistent layouts and easy access to services are just two ways the new AACO website helps residents. Poor organization and inefficient search capabilities are other key factors that prevent users from effectively engaging with government websites. On the AACO site, streamlined navigation allows users to easily find information about topics such as moving to or visiting Anne Arundel County, available jobs, opening a small business, and directions to locations such as local parks, schools and senior centers.
To further improve engagement, the website is fully integrated with the county’s social media channels. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube feeds are featured prominently on the homepage and department-specific social media channels are featured on various department pages throughout the site, helping residents stay up-to-date on the latest news and events throughout the region. In addition, users can submit their photos to the AACO Flickr account, from which select photos are featured on the new website’s homepage.
There are hundreds of services, programs, forms and publications available to residents and visitors of Anne Arundel County, and now users can easily access this information on their desktop, tablet or smartphone, allowing them to remain engaged with the county and more easily accomplish their goals, whether it be to pay a water bill or learn about available team sports.
By addressing common concerns of citizens, the new AACO website will help create a more positive perception of the Anne Arundel County Government, which could have long-term benefits including, greater participation in county events, fewer frustrated calls to customer service centers and greater voter turnout in upcoming elections, to name a few.
As web technology continues to advance, it will become even more important for local, state and federal governments to invest in modern web technology to affirm their investment in the community and provide easily accessible, convenient services to constituents. Anne Arundel County can now count themselves among the innovators in the public sector.
If you’d like guidance on transforming your website’s user experience and joining this growing group of industry innovators, please contact us.