How to create government websites that don’t suck

Posted by Trent Mankelow in e-government on August 30, 2009

The overall goal of the E-government Strategy is for New Zealand to “be a world leader in using IT to realise its economic, social, environmental, and cultural goals, to the benefit of all its people.”

We certainly spend taxpayer money pursuing this goal. Last year 64% of public sector agencies expected to spend money on a new/upgraded website in 2008/09, and 53% expected to spend money on new/upgraded online services.

However, despite spending all this money New Zealand is falling behind in public sector innovation.

A 2008 UN report (PDF, 1.5MB) ranked New Zealand 25th in the world in terms of e-government readiness. That’s a drop from 18th place in 2005.

Despite promises of dramatic change and innovation, the public sector today looks much as it did when the Internet started. Instead of transforming government, innovation has tended to be small-scale and gradual.

I believe that there are four steps to reversing this trend and creating government websites that rock.

Step 1. Create a citizen-centred culture
A. Ditch the shared accountability model

Currently many government departments have a shared accountability model. Someone creates content based on what their team is working on, gets it approved by the comms department and a techie tucked away in a corner somewhere publishes it to the web.

Things like optimizing content for search engines, rewriting pages to make them easier to read and cross-promoting other departments are mostly lost in the busyness of day-to-day operations.

The trouble is that when something is owned by everybody, it is owned by nobody.

For example, one government department we know of doesn’t have an online strategy for their public facing websites or their four intranets. They’ve got no governance group and they’ve got hundreds of authors. The result can’t help but be mediocre.

B. Hire a Chief Citizen Officer

To create a superlative citizen experience public sector agencies need to get away from this shared accountability model and hire someone who can call the shots at the highest level. I believe that every public sector agency should have a Chief Citizen Officer (CCO), whose role it is to manage the customer experience across all the channels.

Hiring a CCO takes guts. But it takes this kind of commitment to run a great website. Real money and real people.
Step 2. Create an actionable, citizen-centric online strategy
A. Stop trying to design for all citizens

Government departments often try and design their websites to suit the needs of “all New Zealanders”.

I understand that most public sector agencies have a vast mandate, to which they are held publicly accountable. But I believe that public sector agencies are mistaken to try and design for all citizens.

The trouble is that when you try to design for everyone, you design for no-one. All you get is a mediocre website.

One great way to stop designing for all citizens is to use personas. Personas are pretend users of a website, based on research, with details to make them “real”. They are a tool that is used to help make design decisions. Suddenly you aren’t designing for everyone, you a designing for a specific someone.

One tip though – personas must be based on data, and there are few shortcuts. Don’t believe anyone who says they can create personas in a day.

B. Create a coherent, lightweight online strategy

Once you know what your users’ goals are, you can combine them with your own organisational goals to create an online strategy.

I believe that you can actually use a fairly simple process to do this. The approach we generally take is to do upfront research into users and their goals, interview stakeholders, and run workshops grounded with real-world examples of other websites. The strategy tends to come together quickly because most of the work is in the preparation.

Finally, don’t develop the online strategy in isolation. The role of the CCO should be to ensure that all services offered across all channels are taken into account as part of a broader cross-channel strategy.
Step 3. Improve findability

A. Create an intuitive information architecture with the help of users

There are currently 10,000,000 webpages spread across 900 .govt domains.

The number of pages are only going to grow. For example, might add 200 documents in a single day when parliament is sitting.

That’s why the information architecture of public sector websites has to be carefully created and validated based on feedback from real users. The structure and labels of a website cannot be made up out of thin air.

B. Remove redundant content, and consolidate sites to make stuff easier to find

Governments in general are broken up into competing agencies and jurisdictions.

This causes government websites to spring up like mushrooms. Agencies care about their individual “web sites” rather than trying to understand the broader goals of their visitors. Websites should be based around key tasks, not agencies, and should ideally hide of the mechanics of government.

Government silos also mean that taxpayers end up paying for the same content in multiple places. I found four different websites that dealt specifically with fuel economy. I would like to calculate how much energy it takes to run all the sustainability websites!

In our product development business we refer to the concept of “killing puppies”. Sometimes hard calls need to be made to discontinue a product. It can feel like putting down your own cute, adorable puppies. But sometimes, that’s what’s needed.

The UK government shutdown 425 sites when it implemented the directgov portal. 425 dead puppies. Maybe it’s time our government did the same.
Step 4. Follow a user-centred design process
A. Use ISO 13407

The New Zealand government spent $1.9B on ICT last year. There is an opportunity to realize immense return on investment from projects that follow a user-centred design (UCD) process simply because government operates on such a large scale.

ISO 13407 is probably the most well known usability standard, and documents the characteristics of UCD. It’s a simple, high-level framework with requirements that include the following:

  • Project planning shall allocate time and resources for the human-centred activities. This shall include time for iteration and the incorporation of user feedback, and for evaluating whether the design solution satisfies the user requirements.
  • Relevant user and stakeholder groups shall be identified and their relationship with the proposed development described in terms of key goals and constraints.
  • There are four linked human-centred design activities that shall take place during the design of any interactive system
    • Understand and specify the context of use;
    • Specify the user requirements;
    • Produce design solutions;
    • Evaluate.

(From International Standards for Usability Should Be More Widely Used)

If you follow this standard you will end up with a more effective, easier to use website. Government RFPs should require vendors to comply with ISO 13407.
Government websites that rock

We still have a long way to go, but there are many examples of successful government websites. is a risky, non-traditional website, targeted at young drivers. The user testing we did showed us that people in the target demographic loved it. (Design by Aim Proximity)

The Retirement Commission used to be three people and a part-time commissioner. They still managed to create the Sorted website that attracted over 1,000,000 visitors/year when they were that small. They succeeded because of their relentless focus on the website – it was and remains their number one channel. (Design by Sparks Interactive)

ACC recently followed ISO13407 to redesign their site, without even realising it! Their emphasis on the user experience and following a robust research programme has resulted in a 25% increase in page views. (Design by DNA)

With examples like these it’s possible to see how the Internet can transform government. I’m looking forward to the day when public sector websites become so useful and intuitive that we drop the term “e-Government” and just call it government.

If you’d like to hear more on this topic come along to a free breakfast on the 22nd of September in Wellington. Those who can’t make might want to check out the slides.

August 30, 2009. Posted by in e-government.

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