Conveniently held in our hometown of Albuquerque, the program for the National Association of Government Web Professionals (NAGW) 2015 Annual Conference was sufficiently compelling to warrant our participation. Two of us attended sessions, receptions, and networked with an enthusiastic group of professionals.
A first observation is in the name. NAGW members prefer “Web Professionals” over webmasters. The difference in meaning (semantics) can have a significant impact on how words are perceived. Master verses professional? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
They are a very professional group, in my observation, and the meeting focused on the challenges and triumphs of running an essentially entrepreneurial effort in a highly political, bureaucratic environment. City, county, and state governments and agencies, as well as some federal agencies, were represented. Issues included web site organization, discovery, security, mobile venues, measuring success, Section 508 compliance, look and feel, branding, training, support, dealing with citizens, and a host of issues common to all web professionals. Technical sessions at the coding level were also on the program.
Besides challenges, there were plenty of triumphs chronicled by various presenters as well as NAGW’s annual “Pinnacle Awards”. The Pinnacle Awards are divided into the population size of the government entity – small, medium, large, etc. Some of the award criteria included team size, content, organization, design, performance and flexibility, accessibility, standards, and interactivity. It was nice to see a significant number of entrants in each category. It can be intimidating having your work evaluated by your peers, but it can be very instructive, leading to an improved site.
Delving into the politics of government websites is out of my purview. What gets posted to a government website brings with it an assumed imprimatur. Verifying, checking, and getting approvals (often multiple) of every content item is costly and time consuming. Resisting blatant or even subtle propaganda posting can be hazardous to one’s career! Being responsive to a new mayor with their unfunded mandates requires a great deal of creativity and maneuverings. Government departments are often fiefdoms and getting cooperation on design issues, what to name things, and providing access to important, useful content is not easy.
A challenge that I can address is discovery. Ron Pringle, City of Boulder, gave a great and candid presentation, “Improving Search: Lessons from the Trenches”. His remarks addressed citizen-facing websites versus internal portals. Why do citizens go to their city’s website? To find resources that answers questions like: What can be recycled? What day is trash pickup? Where do I vote? Who is the city council person for my district? Many city websites seem to be geared to wooing tourists. They are awash in pretty pictures, while a simple listing of government services is woefully missing.
Tourism website for Los Angeles, California
Citizens’ website for Los Angeles, California
Search boxes are hard to find. Navigating is often difficult, although some cities’ websites, like that of Los Angeles, California, were highlighted as quite good.
A good place to start is by analyzing search logs. This will tell you what citizens are trying to find. It beats guessing. The most requested resources should be the easiest to find. Simple listings and navigation tabs are helpful.
Even a simple listing of a city’s major departments can be difficult to assemble. Do you list an agency by its official name or by what most citizens call it? Should the Solid Waste Management Department be listed as such or should it be called the garbage department or sanitation department on the website listing? Again, what your citizens call a department should provide a clue. Navigation aids should be just that – clues that help citizens find the resources they need. Once to the right resource, the official name of a department can be, and should be, prominently displayed. A drop-down navigation aid on the home page does not have to have the official name or the technical name. Do you want to lead with “HHW” or with household hazardous waste disposal or maybe just waste disposal? Lead with a common, general term and then get more specific. From “waste” a citizen might navigate to “hazardous waste” and “nonhazardous waste”. Under hazardous waste could be a list, but again, use common names and not the scientific name: “antifreeze” not “ethylene glycol”. Under types of antifreeze, you could then list ethylene glycol along with propylene glycol, etc., as each may have different disposal requirements.
Albuquerque’s citizen website shows “Trash & Recycling” under the “Community” tab
Lists are good, but what about the ubiquitous search box? This is where a good taxonomy is invaluable. It is the foundation of your navigation lists and aids. A good taxonomy provides the basis for sound navigation and rapid, accurate discovery. It does this by mapping the language of the citizen to the language of city bureaucrats. What the citizen calls the garbage department, the city calls the sanitation department, or the solid waste department, or… A taxonomy will bridge this gap. Taxonomies can help resolve the hundreds of acronyms that are so prevalent in government. It provides a reliable connection between the vernacular and the formal, or more scientific, terminology.
I encourage you to investigate the rich resources on semantics, thesauri, and taxonomies found at our company website. I also encourage you to investigate NAWG, if you are a web professional in the government arena.
Jay Ven Eman, CEO