9 things to look for in a government website vendor

Posted on November 30, 2023

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If you want a great government website, you need a strong vendor to support you. A good vendor:

  • Understands the importance of content and make it easy for you to manage it
  • Has a deep understanding and commitment to digital accessibility and security
  • Always gets better

Most local governments rely on a vendor to support their website. The vendor typically provides a content management system and hosting services. Government staff are usually responsible for writing and entering the content.

Selecting a vendor can feel daunting. It can be hard to tell them apart and evaluate their proposals during your website vendor selection process. Here are 9 things you want to make sure your vendor does well.

1. Websites

Government websites don’t need to be unique or creative. They need to be accessible, accurate, and easy to understand. It’s important to connect people to services quickly. Quirky and cute marketing can get in the way of that.

Find a vendor with a track record for making great government websites that help people do things. Ask them to share what makes a local government website great and show examples in their portfolio that exemplify this.

Here’s a few things to look for:

  • Is it easy to find common government services?
  • Are there accessibility issues? Test the sites using the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool.
  • Does the site work well on mobile?
  • Does the search work well?
  • Do the pages load quickly?

Local government websites are complex because of the number of departments, services, and content priorities. It’s important to find a vendor that understands this complexity and the unique needs of government (like public meetings).

Find a vendor that focuses on websites. You don’t need a vendor that also sells systems for permitting and records management. Large vendors do this to upsell and lock you into their suite products. Those systems have different purposes and are made with different code. Multiple products often lead to diluted focus.

2. Content management system

It should be easy to make simple changes to your website. You should also be able to make most changes yourself, without the vendor’s involvement. It should not require a lot of training.

During the website vendor selection process, ask if you can try before you buy. Test the system out yourself to see how intuitive it is. When you test the content management system, check how easy it is to do things like:

  • Create a new page
  • Edit an existing page
  • Organize your pages and menus
  • Manage documents
  • Edit and manage web forms

While the initial implementation will typically include user training, remember that you will have a need to onboard new users in the future. Look for a vendor with comprehensive help documentation and ongoing training opportunities.

3. Digital accessibility

Your vendor should show a strong and honest commitment to digital accessibility. Accessibility standards are constantly evolving so this takes ongoing work. Updates to address accessibility issues should be part of their regular releases. Ask vendors to provide their accessibility statement and conformance report.

There are certain accessibility features that your vendor should have in the code of their product, like Aria labels. Many content related aspects are up to you to get right. Ask your vendor what kind of training and guidance they provide so your site is as accessible as possible.

Your site should work well on any device. This isn’t just a convenience – many people with lower incomes rely on their cell phone and don’t have a computer at home. Ask your vendor about how their design works across different devices. Ideally, they design with mobile in mind from the start.

4. Security

The need for a secure site increases every day, with government website hacks making the news often.

Here’s what to check for:

  • 100% HTTPS SSL encryption
  • Regular software updates, with security vulnerabilities released immediately
  • Authenticated and secure user account verification
  • Multi factor authentication
  • PCI compliant credit card payments (if these are part of the platform)
  • Back-up, disaster recovery with nightly database and file backups
  • Secure cloud-hosting

For security reasons, vendor’s won’t put specific security information publicly on their website but you should be able to request a security white paper from them.

5. Transparent pricing

It should be easy to find pricing information without going through hoops. The pricing model and options should be easy to understand.

The cost will typically have both recurring and one-time costs. The recurring cost is typically an annual software subscription fee for maintenance and hosting. One-time costs include things like:

  • Set-up
  • Onboarding
  • Custom development (if needed)

You may be surprised to find a website can cost less than the amount required for a formal bidding process!

6. Structured content

If you want a great government website, your content needs to be easy to:

  • Find
  • Scan
  • Understand

Your website vendor is not typically responsible for your content, but it’s helpful to have one that understands content structure. It should be easy to create structure in the content management system, like:

  • Headings
  • Lists
  • Events
  • Documents
  • Contacts

One way to make a bad website is with a content migration from your old site. Some vendors will offer this and the shortcut sounds tempting. But this will likely lead to moving over content that is out of date, unstructured, and poorly written.

7. Help documentation

Comprehensive help documentation gives your content editors the tools they need to use the system without having to ask for help. This shows they are thinking about customer support in an efficient and effective way.

Ask to see their documentation. It should be easy to:

  • Find topics
  • Understand steps

When you review their documentation, this should also give you clues about how easy the system is to use.

8. Search

Search plays a key role in how people find information on your website. There are 2 key things to keep in mind when it comes to search:

  • Search engine optimization
  • Internal search

The majority of people visiting your website come from Google. In some ways, Google is your homepage. Your content needs to perform well with external search engines. This is known as search engine optimization.

Your site also needs a strong internal search function. If you have multiple sites, you may need your search to work across multiple domains. Some helpful search functionality to look for includes auto-complete, filtering, and the ability to search text within documents.

9. Continuous improvement

Your new website will launch, but that doesn’t mean it’s done. A website is never done. Not only should you have a plan for how you will maintain and improve your content over time, but your vendor should also have a product improvement framework.

Ask your vendor about their:

  • Regular update cycle and how they are documented
  • Process for releasing new product features

One of the problems with a custom site is it can be a lot of work to maintain. For small and medium sized local governments, we recommend using a SaaS vendor for your website. You will benefit from regular maintenance and updates, like an app on your phone that updates periodically.

Final thoughts

Many of the big government website vendors have strong marketing teams. Like any important purchase, do your research and don’t get distracted by sales tactics. Focus on the core things you need your vendor to do well.

It’s easy to pay for subpar services when it comes to website vendors. Be wary of opaque pricing models and hidden costs.

Making a great government website is hard and takes ongoing work. Don’t trust a website vendor that sugarcoats or takes shortcuts. Trust a vendor that is transparent, honest, and upfront about what they do.

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  • Design a website vendor selection process
  • Find a government website vendor
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