May 31 2022

How to Make State Government Websites More Useful to the Public

Speaking at a recent Adobe forum, a state official advised ways to produce more pleasing public sector content.

Government website content strategy has undergone a major shift since the start of the pandemic, according to Chris Wollesen, web content management supervisor at the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology (DOIT).

Speaking at the Adobe Experience Makers Government Forum in Washington, D.C., last month, Wollesen talked about why the transformation has been so critical.

“Honestly, prior to the pandemic, a lot of agencies looked at their websites as a file repository to post PDFs and store lots of information, but they didn’t put a whole lot of thought into how that information was organized,” he said. “Or if they did organize it, they did it in a way that made sense to them as an internal organization, not the way that the residents and the citizens of Illinois might need.”

When intake centers and in-person government services began to shut down in 2020, the DOIT team immediately saw a huge gap between public needs and the information available on public websites.

“People couldn't find what they were looking for. The sites were difficult to use, and they didn't have the critical information,” he said.

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Shifting from Online Brochures to Navigable Tools

Wollesen and his team encouraged state agencies to think of their websites as integral working extensions of their organizations. They encouraged a shift from viewing their websites as online brochures to seeing them as tools to help deliver better customer outcomes.

“Something that could be just as valuable as a call center or as someone at an intake desk,” he said.

To keep that customer conversation relevant, Wollesen said it was key to focus on user outcomes and goals.

“Success for government looks completely different than success for private business,” Wollesen said. “The biggest trouble that’s reported to us is that things are hard to find. We want people to come in, get what they want and move on. They may not know what agency deals with service X, Y or Z, but we can get them to where they need to go in the minimum number of clicks.”

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Accessibility is a major part of the navigation equation.

Accessibility and inclusion are not an add-on or afterthought. They should be a hallmark of good content,” Wollesen said. “It’s easy for us to say, ‘OK, we need to add text to images and caption videos,’ but accessibility is much larger than that.”

He talked about designing navigation so users can find information multiple ways, as well as creating content with a consistent reading level and including language options for nonnative English speakers.

“You need to ask, ‘How do we make sure that everyone in our population is able to get to this information and utilize it effectively?’” said Wollesen. “Then, you need to make sure that each agency within the state is on the same page so that we're projecting a single unified position.”

Modernize Website Content Through a ROT Analysis

As for deciding what content should be showcased and what needs to go, Wollesen described the “ROT” analysis that helped his agency modernize many Illinois websites.

“One of the first exercises we went through was a ROT analysis — which means redundant, outdated or trivial information — because government is full of it,” he said.

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“Whenever you’re going through a major shift like this, it’s a great time to do spring cleaning, to make sure that all your information is out there correctly and deserves to be out there.”

Wollesen and his team also made a major effort to train and empower staff at individual agencies to update and maintain their own website content.

“The more we can get the users to maintaining their own content, the more likely it’s going to be updated correctly,” he said. “That also factors into the information being more accessible.”

Seek Deeper Website Analytics Than Page Views

When websites are accessible, consistent and updated, analytics keeps the content improvement cycle moving forward.

For example, Wollesen and his team look at data on what goes wrong, such as when a search bar or a chatbot yields bad results. “Those misses become opportunities to improve, and we are now looking at them in a new light from the customer perspective,” he said.

Again, Wollesen emphasized that government goals and metrics often conflict with what website and content developers typically strive for in business.

DIVE DEEPER: How governments can make digital services more accessible.

“Pre-pandemic, I was often told the measurement of a good website is page views. But in reality, that is a horrible metric because oftentimes it just means people are lost on your site and clicking around,” he said. “So, now we try to identify better goals. How many form submissions were successfully processed? How many people signed up for benefits?”

Metrics also need to be viewed through an equity lens.

“Often, the most needy are the smallest number,” Wollesen said. “It’s important to take those metrics and weight them so that we have as near to total inclusion as humanly possible.”

Aja Koska/Getty Images

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