7 Guiding Principles to Citizen Centric City Websites and Digital Experiences

My love for cities started at a very young age. I vividly remember taking the rolls of paper from the flooring store my dad worked at and laying them out on our basement floor, drawing in-depth cities and roadways, with buildings and layouts that rivaled our own city planners drawings (in my opinion, anyway!). When I discovered SimCity for SNES at the age of eight, I was hooked. Outside of World of Warcraft, SimCity consumed more time than any other video game, and that’s saying something.

With the help of a few solid mods, I’ll still fire up SimCity 4 on occasion (the last good Sim City game) and live in my little fantasy land of city building.

This blog post is inspired by those long hours of virtual city building, and experiences Goat has been lucky enough to have worked with municipalities, small to large.

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Municipal governments are under increasing pressure to make it easier for citizens to live, work and play in their cities, and digital products are a powerful way to help ease these pressures.

In the past 3 years, I’ve reviewed 100’s of Requests for Proposals for Cities of all sizes, as well as built and worked on many more. What I’ve always found interesting is that most cities and towns, regardless of size, have similar requirements. The biggest difference is the tax-payer base they have to work with, which ultimately, impacts the budget available to carry out these strategies..

The reality is, Cities, Towns and Municipalities can create ample amounts of efficiency by building their websites similarly to how tech companies build their products. Iterative, efficient and simple. Anytime you have public servants moving information from a PDF to an Excel Sheet, into some closed-source ERP, back to an excel, then into some form of mailing automation (yes, regular, stamp and envelope mail), you’re wasting valuable human capital on tasks that can be made a) a much better experience for the taxpayer or user, and b) easier to manage internally.

I can only imagine how much of the permitting backlog the City of Vancouver has that could be eliminated with strong digital products and processes… but I digress.

This article will be the start of a longer form series on building effective websites for municipal government. I’m going to start with the seven guiding principles to building successful municipal websites, regardless of municipality size. I’ll break them down by the what, why and risks associated if you don’t follow the principle.

Guiding Principle 1: Design & Develop everything with accessibility in mind. No exceptions.

Why you do this: 

You’d think this is obvious, but in reality, most websites today still don’t meet even the most basic in Accessibility standards. As a city with diverse populations, it’s an absolute necessity to maintain a minimum of WCAG AA level accessibility standards.

Towns, Cities and Municipalities have diverse populations, with varying levels of technical ability. Designing and developing your website to meet WCAG AA standards will ensure that a majority of your users can see the correct colours, read the text effectively and navigate with varying levels of support tools, like screen readers, dictation tools and many other accessibility tools.

Committing to accessibility can be a challenging task. Most pre-built themes and products will not meet the basic requirements and can oftentimes be more work to adapt to meet, then building from scratch.

Risks if you don’t: 

It’s your responsibility to serve the tax-payer base, and that tax-payer base has unique challenges. Most of the time, a poor accessibility score is the result of a) budget constraints, b) agencies or vendors not understanding accessibility, c) pre-built tools and products that didn’t keep accessibility in mind or d) a combination of all 3.

Not having a minimum AA accessibility standard puts you at risk for bad press, and potential lawsuits, not to mention the fact it contributes to a poor experience for your users.

What we suggest: There are plenty of great tools to help you identify accessibility issues on your website. Here are a few to get you started:

In general, building your website bespoke from scratch will offer a better opportunity to be more accessible. Starting with tools like Craft CMS offer a ton of benefit, as they’re already industry recognized as being the best of the business from an accessibility perspective. If you’re being consulted to use a SaSS or pre-built product, ensure you push for thorough accessibility testing. If they can’t meet basic accessibility requirements, it’s probably best not to move forward.

It’s also important to keep your front-end code clean and organized. Simple things like alt text and tab orders are often missed or forgotten in the HTML, creating an immediate fail for core screen reader and dictation uses. There is no excuse for this to happen in 2022!

Guiding Principle 2: Focus on simplicity and end user experience, not animations and visual extras.

Why you do this: 

Your job is to be useful. People do not go to your city website for fun. Most of the time, they’re there because they need to do something they don’t necessarily enjoy doing (parking tickets, anyone?). End points are very singular in nature, whether it's learning about a permit, booking a spot at the local gym or registering a little one in a summer program. They have a purpose and your goal is to help them achieve that goal. We’re not aiming to surprise and delight, we’re here to serve. This is a tool for citizens to make it easier to live, work and play in your city.

Risks if you don’t: 

When you focus too much on the flash, there are a bunch of different things that can happen. Let’s start with the technical bits.

The more Javascript and CSS you use to take care of animations, photos, video, etc, the longer the pages take to load. It’s obviously more complex than that, but in the most simplistic way… the more fluff, the more to load, the slower the site. This has negative consequences for Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and hurts your accessibility ratings (not everyone has fast internet!). This is especially true for smaller towns with lower speed internet.

You’re also alienating your tax-payer audience. Yes, you have an obligation to sell the prospects of living in your town or city, but there are more effective ways to do this, with separate microsites or with a good mix of copy/design assets that don’t rely on large amounts of code to execute. Remember, a majority of users are focused on a single endpoint, and don’t want to wade through a bunch of fluffy mud to find it.

What we suggest: 

Keep things simple and focused. Websites like https://sf.gov/ and https://www.oaklandca.gov/ are well respected by their citizens, largely because they're focused on delivering a great experience, and not stroking the ego's of city managers and politicians.

Guiding Principle 3: Pick development tools that are either open source, or focused on a specific deliverable.

Why you do this: 

Having a website based on open-source products allows you to have full control and ownership over your digital decisions. When you use a closed source, proprietary product, you’re more likely to be stuck in long term contracts with agencies that have no incentive to maintain or upgrade their own products. You also run the risk of being required to use that agency to use and maintain an essential part of your citizen experience, which inherently is very risky.

Risks if you don’t: 

From the outside looking in, closed source, proprietary products seem great. They allegedly offer all the features you think you need, they’re in most cases, much more affordable at first glance and have a great sales team that assures you it’s going to be a great move for your town.

The reality is, they’re catch-all products that are usually mediocre at everything. You’re locked in with that product, and are not free to use your own resources to adjust the experience to your liking. You’ll be paying expensive, proprietary vendors to handle the updates, and you’ll constantly feel trapped.

When companies design a SaSs or Proprietary product, they’re focusing on building something that does 80% of what they’re target audience will do, with no focus on bespoke design per client.

What we suggest: 

Don’t rely on closed source, software as a service products or agencies that have their own proprietary products. Utilize products like Craft CMS and WordPress to help execute your UX/UI Strategy. Ensure the agency has experience working with modern API’s, and recommends tools that are best in class for their purpose. We’ve listed a few we like below:

  • Search and Indexing: Algolia

  • Transactional Email: Sendgrid or Drip

  • SMS Notification: Sendgrid or Twilio (USA and some in Canada)

  • Payments: Stripe

  • Maps: Mapbox or Google if you have to.

Guiding Principle 4: Public research is important, but it’s not everything. Keep public research pointed and directional.

Why you do this: Digital Design is a very new discipline compared to other infrastructure based disciplines. Most people have absolutely no idea what a website requires to be considered a great experience. One of our clients said in a follow up 6 months after the launch of their new township website, “We’ve had 0 complaints about the new site, which to us, is a resounding success!”.

Public research needs to answer a few key questions;

  • How do citizens interact with city staff?

  • How is data handled when it leaves the citizens hands and ends up in the municipalities hand?

  • What issues come to mind when Citizens think of dealing with their local municipality?

  • What mediums citizens depend on to gather required information about their municipality?

Risks if you don’t:

Taxpayers in most jurisdictions wouldn't know what to tell you, even if you asked the best questions or the most thorough talking points. You can quickly get lost in meaningless data, ideas and hypotheses that don’t support the goals of the project. Getting too detailed in the public research also creates false expectations. I’ve seen a few scenarios where citizens we interviewed emailed staff/council once the new site went live, complaining that their suggestion/feedback wasn’t implemented. They assumed (even though we warned them), that if they told us it was going to happen, it was going to happen. I won’t even get into what the suggestion was, but… let’s put it this way, it was by no means a good suggestion.

What we suggest:

Let the designers, developers and strategists handle how to build part of the project, and use the public research to inform the best architecture for your city or municipality. Pick questions that are extremely pointed and encourage answers that are specific in nature.

Here are a few questions pulled from our research documents we’ve used in the past:

  1. “What situations or events require you to reach out to the municipality at least once annually?”

    This question is important because every municipality's citizens run into different issues. Towns that are 10k+ residents but far from any major city, have much different needs than a town of 4k+ residents next to a major center.
  2. “How do you currently do annual tasks, like pay property taxes, or report issues with (insert city service here)”?

    Every city has different ways to do these types of tasks. It’s always interesting to find the roundabout ways people do what you might think is a simple task.
  3. “How do you currently apply for a permit or license of any type?”

    I guarantee this will come up in any municipality, regardless of type. Digitizing these processes is one of the more challenging parts of building municipal websites, but can be one of the most valuable if done correctly.

Guiding Principle 5: Work with internal staff stakeholders to better understand how the website supports their day to day jobs

Why you do this:

Staff that keep the City running are, generally speaking, the most impacted by digital transformation of any type. In theory, the website should be the central communication gateway between the taxpayer and the civil servant. The website should change the entire dynamic of this interaction. It’s imperative you deeply understand how these interactions occur currently, what happens after they’re concluded and what’s done with the information transferred.

City Council and Executive Leadership (City Managers, Directors etc.) will be the loudest voice in the room. You can’t ignore it, but you need to take everything they say with a grain of salt. Spending time talking to the agent in the 411 call center will provide a huge amount of valuable information that no CIty Council or Executive can begin to articulate. If you can make the job of a city servant easier, you’ll gain serious fandom internally, providing you opportunities to continue working with the internal staff of the organization.

Risks if you don’t:

Internal staff are the essential part of getting scale buy-in in any transformation project, especially digital. There will be challenges when going live, especially with the public (they’re going to complain about change, regardless), and the value of having them stick through the first few months of pain because they feel they contributed their parts, can’t be understated. If you don’t engage internal staff and stakeholders, you run the risk of poor adoption, and a lack of buy-in from a change management perspective.

You’ll also risk not having a product that lasts the test of time. When staff find that the website helps them with their day to day, they’re more committed to the success of it long term. If it doesn’t relate to their needs and skill sets, they won’t feel a commitment or loyalty to seeing the project through to success.

Last but not least, you’ll risk having a disconnected end-user experience. Disconnection between their civic servants and their personal experience will cause data to go missing, expectations not being met and inconsistency in the communications and experiences.

What we suggest:

Let the User Experience Designers do their job. They’re experts in discerning the data collected through research, and turning it into an actionable, workable product that helps citizens do their day to day items. Give them access to the people without creating bias in between. Trust that the people working within your organization are there to do the best job they can.

When you’re picking people to have the Design team chat with, pick highly engaged employees that have a proven track record of solid performance and a desire to solve problems. We’ve had interviews with staff that are so one track minded, that every question leads back to ulterior issues or problems that don’t provide insight. This is obviously problematic. Having a diverse set of employees from various backgrounds, departments and disciplines will help maintain quality feedback and results.

Guiding Principle 6: Don’t assume what you’re doing now is the right thing to do, even if it works today.

Why you do this:

I absolutely hate the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”. That saying is one of the many reasons the City of Vancouver is a permitting disaster, so much so they had to create a tasks force to blast through their self-created backlog of red tape.

Pushing to improve might produce obvious results… better innovation, better customer service, happier employees, happier taxpayers etc etc., but there are some more tactical results that impact the bottom line. Why does this matter? Because in a tax-payer funded environment, budget is the easiest way to entice change. When we tell a team of people that their job would require 5 times less data entry because of a form digitization, their ears quickly perk up.

A better tax-payer experience will create efficiencies, which in-turn help you apply budget to more thoughtful areas. You also open up more revenue opportunities through more efficient taxation and fee collection. No one wants to pay these fees, but if you make it as easy as possible to submit a permit and charge me to do it whether it’s easy or not, I’d rather it be easy.

Risks if you don’t:

Unfortunately, in Government, there is little incentive to increase efficiency, and this is a key culprit in this attitude. The opportunity for Digital Tools to increase efficiency is a no-brainer (in my obviously biased opinion!), and when you keep leaning on antiquated tools, ideologies, processes and systems to do things because it simply “works”, you end up building a culture of apathy.

The greatest example of this is a reliance on PDF documentation. We admittedly don’t have a TON of city/municipality experience in practice (Oakland is our biggest client), but the reliance on PDF’s is one of the more problematic issues I see when it comes to data collection. PDF’s are a great tool for displaying information in a visibly reliable way, and are a decent way to collect large amounts of data in long-form format.

What we suggest:

Don’t be afraid to mess up! Digital Transformation is not a perfect process. There will be trials and tribulations, and it will seem more fragmented than what you’re used to when sticking with “what works”. Replace PDFs with digital forms. Use good quality software to solve problems (search for example), and take risks, except with people's information. Don’t mess with that, please and thank you!

There are tons of talented strategists, designers, developers and managers that are itching to help out smaller governments.

Guiding Principle 7: Build a long term design-thinking culture.

Why you do this:

Good design solidifies your place in a digital world. It helps instill good habits, and helps your citizens conduct day to day municipal matters with ease. Budgets for cities and municipalities can vary greatly, but your needs still stay the same, and good design-thinking culture can help maintain a strong user experience at scale.

It’s important to look top down when implementing. Work with a UX/UI designer to build a design system, and document it well. This upfront investment might seem like a challenge at first, but it’ll empower your content managers and creators to maintain consistency across your digital products, without pushing them too far out of their comfort zone from a design perspective. Not everyone has the skillset to create new assets and maintain accessibility standards! A good design system will provide the tools they need to do their job more effectively.

Risks if you don’t:

Design inconsistency is death by a thousand cuts. Even something simple as the difference between button hover states in different tools adds to an inconsistent experience, slowly chipping away at the trust your users have in your digital products.

There have been countless studies that show inconsistent design erodes trust and hampers the experience of your users. In the 2016 Adobe State of Create report, 46% of users responded “I will not purchase from a brand if its website or mobile experience is poorly designed”. While we understand you’re not selling anything, you are trying to relieve pressure from internal teams manual workload, and we’d argue that saving time is one of the more challenging goals in municipal government, and good design will encourage your users to use self-serve options, helping meet those time saving goals.

What we suggest:

Invest in a good design system, and encourage your leadership to hold teams accountable to the design system. Hire a firm that has extensive experience with design culture, and empower them to train your teams on the system. Ensure your IT teams are on-board when rolling out digital tools, and make sure the tools you select can be modified enough to meet the requirements of your design system.

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