By JIM PANAGAS
County government isn’t something that most Americans spend a lot of time thinking about. But one enterprising county on the west coast wants to change all that. The County of San Luis Obispo, tucked in between San Francisco and Los Angeles counties, wanted to find a more efficient way to keep citizens informed about available public services, increase the level of engagement with its citizens, and run a much more open government. So it recently completed a year-long project to roll out an all-new website to better serve its citizens.
The project was expansive in scope, replacing a site built 10 years ago. It involved more than 100 county employees working across 23 different departments. It had to convey the benefits of 750 available public services and provide on-demand access to more than 5000 files and documents. Ultimately, the project would be made up of 2700 individual web pages.
“The key to success for this website was collaboration,” explained Whitney Szentesi, social media and communications analyst for the County of San Luis Obispo. “From very early on, we had to be certain that we were working with all of the stakeholders, getting feedback from the public, from all of our departments, and from elected officials, making sure that they were comfortable with everything that was going on.”
Showcasing the County's Public Services
First up was finding a way to communicate information about hundreds of public services, without overwhelming people. “There are all these public services that people just don’t know about,” noted Tyler Penney, web services administrator for the county, “so a big part of this project was education, letting people know everything that the county does for them – and that’s a lot.”
He continued, “From helping people with social services, to giving people help financially. We have our District Attorney’s office, and the Sheriff. We have our own health agency. We have a department of weights and measures that makes sure that all of the scales throughout the county are correct. It’s an incredible array of services, and it’s our duty to let county residents know about them.”
Quantity of Content and Quality of Design
This project was about not only quantity of content, but also quality of design. In other words, how do you build a website that’s orderly and easy to navigate when you’ve got so much material to share? One thing the team did is look at what other counties and municipalities were doing. “There were quite a few different websites, both larger governments and smaller governments, that we took into account,” said Penney. “There were a couple of sites in particular that were so simple to use, like the UK’s website. It had an influence on us because it really took minimalism to a new level.”
Providing Multiple Ways to Access Information
Rathan rely on a single way for website visitors to find information, the team decided on providing multiple avenues of access. Said Szentesi, “We organized all of our services into topics and categories that we knew people would be searching for. The team recognized the importance of giving people multiple ways to find information.” The new site, in fact, allows people to search for information based on:
• Identifying who you are within the county i.e. resident, business owner, property owner, parent, visitor, or other
• Searching an alphabetical list of county departments, or
• Scrolling through a list of tasks you can accomplish on the site.
To further build out the look and feel of the new website, the county turned to local design firm iiiDesign.
"Our role,” explained Edward Marshall, creative director, “was to develop a set of basic skins for the site, and give the county the flexibility to build on them as necessary in order to maintain a consistent look and feel.”
Selecting the Right CMS Platform
Whenever an organization is launching a website, it’s an opportunity to review the underlying technology platform or CMS system. You want to make sure that the one you select is not only sophisticated enough for the project, but also features an open environment so that you can integrate other tools and corporate systems such as CRM. The County of San Luis Obispo was no exception. It did its due diligence and even drew on analyst reports to make sure that the platform was viable.
“We needed to make sure that all of our third party digital tools were integrated into the new site,” shared Szentesi. “So when we were looking for a content management system, we needed to make sure that it had that kind of capability. And the one that we found did.”
“There are a lot of products out there,” added Penney, “and organizations like ours have to rely on a third party to be able to assess these things and point us in the right direction. We needed something that was Microsoft.NET based.”
High Degree of Public Involvement
The county went to great lengths to include the public every step of the way. For example, they encouraged citizens to submit photographs taken within the county, and many of them were built into the site design, giving full credit to the individual photographers. They also involved the citizenry in both user testing and surveys.
“We needed to know with certainty that our website was easy to use for every single age group,” said Szentesi, noting that county residents expected to visit the site ranged from young people in their teens and 20s to senior citizens, some of them in their 90s. The way that people of different ages interact with computers, tablets, and phones can vary dramatically.
“We also did some usability testing,” explained Penney. “We also sent surveys to constituents, asking what they liked about the site, or what they didn’t like about it. So we were able to quickly turn around and make adjustments.” Based on feedback, the county, for example, added a Google Translate button to the site, enabling visitors to read content in a number of different languages.
Another area where Penney saw an opportunity was by taking a more contemporary approach to meeting notices. “We hold a lot of public meetings around the county – there are a lot of decisions being made that require public input,” Penney said. “So we are creating a new way for county residents to see upcoming meetings and be notified at the top of the screen when a new meeting is about to start. That functionality will be coming to the site soon.”
It’s a never-ending process, noted Penney.
“We’re constantly on the lookout for ways to have the site do more, deliver more clarity, and provide us with a more open government.”
What the Stats Show: More Engagement, More Mobile Users
The impact from the new website is already being felt.
“We have seen a marked increase in the amount of time that people are spending going through various sections of the site,” explained Penney. “Before, someone might have just found the information they were looking for and left. Now they are also spending time reading our news articles and some of the other special page types that communicate what’s going on in the county.”
He continued “The number of website visitors year over year hasn’t really increased, but what we do see is more engagement and a much lower bounce rate across the board. We also see a lot more users coming in through their mobile devices. That’s why it was very important for us to make this a responsive website.”
"It's a People Project"
“A lot of people would say that a website is a technology project, but it’s not,” concluded Szentesi. “It’s a people project. It’s all about providing service. It’s about how are you going to help the people you are serving, your customers, whoever they are. And making sure that the site works for them and for you.”
She continued, “It’s really interesting when you launch a new website as a public agency, especially if you hadn’t changed yours in 10 years. People become accustomed to the way that it looks and the way that it is, but we have completely revamped that and gone in a totally different direction. And so far people have reacted very well to it.”
About the Author: Jim Panagas is the Director of PR & Analyst Relations for Kentico Software, a leading provider of CMS technology. A seasoned marketing and communications professional, he has been working in the technology industry for 25 years. His current assignment is educating the market about digital experience platforms including Kentico EMS and Kentico Cloud.