10 Ways Government Agencies Can Make Constituents Proud of Their Work

The primary assumption behind this article is that, if you’re a government agency or other type of public sector office, the public probably feels some frustration with you. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger here; I’m just a marketing guy trying to help, not the cause of your troubles. (Besides, I’m joking around here a bit, so don’t take it all too seriously).

In any case, there’s no way I can change the things they find frustrating about working with government entities (e.g., taxation, bureaucracy, inconvenience, etc.). But, maybe I can make things at least a little easier. You see, I’ve made a list of the most essential elements that a governmental web site should have. Let’s take a look at the list, and then I’ll discuss what’s on it and what isn’t.

(Note: This doesn’t apply to schools. For educational web site best practices, I have a separate article.)

10 Most Important Web Site Elements for Governments and Public Sector Entities

  • CMS / site infrastructure / hosting setup
  • Responsive design
  • Accessibility (e.g., catering to ADA, etc.)
  • Proper disclosures and compliance
  • Privacy policy and terms of service
  • Clear policy and service information
  • Contact information
  • Google maps / directions
  • Search engine on site
  • Custom scripted features

To start, a government really needs the best foundation possible. So, a proper IT infrastructure and a Content Management System (CMS) would be a priority. Many governments choose Drupal as the CMS. I actually recommend Joomla! for the CMS, as it also comes with many features that governments would typically leverage, such as the ability to offer different types of administrative access to different personnel within the agency. For many, this is a handy and relevant feature!

Municipalities, for example, may have several departments, each of which may want to update their own materials or area(s) of the site. So, this first bullet is really about the site foundation — the system, the hosting, the whole nine. For governments, let’s get this squared away before doing anything else — but take the rest of this list into consideration before taking action.

The next two bullets focus on the user experience. Responsive design essentially means that your web site will work and look good on all types of devices — phones, tablets, desktop computers. While some businesses can ignore responsive design, I think governments should particularly embrace it, as your demographic is everyone in your area.

Accessibility is a related, but distinct feature that I haven’t mentioned much on other articles like this one. But, for governments, just as you want to ensure that your site looks good on all devices, you also want to ensure that the site is accessible by all. This means making special provisions for blind and deaf people, for example. Think of these things as ADA accommodations for your web site. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) offers some information and guidelines that merit review and implementation. Like any ADA accommodation, this will require additional time and cost, but the benefit is accessibility for all.

The next two bullets are basically the legalese that governments absolutely need. This one’s a no-brainer, and actually is pretty easy to get done. Just send an email to your legal eagle stating that you need these disclosures for the site, and I’m sure they’ll get back to you in 6 or 9 months with 20 pages of legalese to post. (I’m kidding there… But, seriously, you do need to write up all of the various legal disclosures necessary for a government web site. This is certainly something more important for governments than almost anyone else — if only because, in the context of a government web site, this stuff basically becomes actual public policy.)

Up until now, we haven’t even come to the actual content! So, let’s get into this. Traditionally, governments are massive administrative systems that manage enormous amounts of paper files. Likewise, the information and records were always stored on paper forms and other miscellaneous paperwork (instructions, policy statements, etc.).

But, I like to imagine that all governments will go fully electronic at some point. So, I like to think of the web versions of various policies, instructions, and forms as the official versions. A web site is a super way to organize and keep all documents up to date. So, I see clear, on-point content as absolutely critical for government sites. A well-organized web site is in fact an important part of a government’s transformation from old paperwork to new data-focused information management.

All that is well and good, but if it’s not clearly written, well-organized, easily searchable, and intuitive, the public isn’t going to like it. Don’t feel bad if this takes a while to accomplish. Heck, just look at the Obamacare web site. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on it, and it didn’t even work when they launched it! (By the way, a lot of people ask me about the Obamacare web site — what went wrong, how complicated it really is, etc. I’ll save that for another article, perhaps.)

Contact information is crucial for a governmental sites. Taxpayers want to see this; it gives them some assurance that someone is there if the site doesn’t answer their question. Likewise, they appreciate directions to your office location — and if you can offer tips on parking without costing them a fortune, they’ll like that, too. When you think about it, a major challenge for governments is humanizing the whole government / taxpayer interaction as much as possible.

The final item on my list was custom-scripted features — automating processes to the extent technologically possible, and integrating the web site with user data to the extent possible. One basic example would be form submissions — especially those that do not require payments (for example bid submissions). Getting a little more advanced, you could pull data from taxpayer records for display on the site, offer password-protected access to taxpayers to provide / edit information and access services, and even take payments online. Some of these things can become a little complex, but most governments have the data more or less in place for this. It’s usually just a matter of doing the custom scripting necessary to make online services available in a secure and useful way.

Finally, while all of the above are important for governments, and some may be quite complex, it may be somewhat of a relief for such sites to not have to worry about other common web concerns as much as other web sites. For example, social media integration isn’t as important for governments. Nor is SEO, advertising, microformat markup, online reviews, etc. In fact, good arguments can be made against expanding into these areas for public sector entities. I’ll leave such concerns for the reader to ponder.

Good luck with your governmental web site! I hope the above serves as a fine starting point, and I welcome questions / comments anytime.


👨‍🚀 Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “United States Capitol” by Robert (Flickr, Public domain).

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