Your website is the foundation of your digital government services and customer service. A helpful website that works well will increase public confidence and trust in government. In this guide, we’ll help you make the best local government website.
We’ll provide a comprehensive rundown of a City website project, including:
- Why it’s important
- How to manage a website project
- Suggestions if you’re new to managing websites
Why you need a great government website
Your website is often the first impression of your agency. It serves as the main source of information for your services, programs, and community. Many residents and businesses form crucial opinions of your organization based on how well your website works.
Your website is where people go to:
- Do things (pay a parking ticket, apply for a permit)
- Find information (when their garbage is picked up, what the leash laws are at their neighborhood park)
Sometimes these are everyday, mundane things. Other times it’s more critical, like information during disasters or filing a police report.
At the end of the day, your website is the foundation of your services whether they are digital or not. Its helpfulness is a measure of your customer service.
6 phases of a website project
There are 6 key phases to launching a new website for your City or government agency.
Website project planning
The first phase is the planning phase. If you are planning to build a website in the new fiscal year, you typically start planning for the project about 4 or 5 months before. This phase includes:
- Identifying your budget and setting aside funds
- Researching vendors and procurement
- Forming your project team (even if it’s just 1 person)
Some agencies go through a formal bidding process with a request for proposal (RFP), however this is not usually necessary. Building a website can often be done under most informal bidding thresholds.
Once you have planned your project, it’s time to learn about your organization’s needs and priorities. It’s helpful to do this work with your vendors. This usually involves:
- Setting guiding principles
- Identifying citywide and department priorities
- Reviewing existing analytics
- Creating a service inventory
- Establishing a content guide
This work can be done efficiently. For example, you probably don’t need to write your own content guide and can use one that’s already in place.
Once you are ready to start building your site, your website vendor will lead you through the onboarding process. This involves learning how to use the content management system and then using it to build the site.
During the build process, it’s critical to update your content so it’s:
- Easy to understand
For most of your content, this should be a straightforward effort. For high priority content, you may want to spend more time rewriting it.
It’s important to prioritize because you likely won’t have the capacity to overhaul all of your content during the project. Focus on the most important now, and work on the rest over time.
Once you have a substantial amount of content on your new site, launch a beta version to the public. This will help test assumptions and get early feedback on the site.
To get meaningful feedback:
- Ask for input on specific pages
- Observe people using the site
Collect feedback and discuss it with the team. Not all feedback should be acted upon, but if it makes sense – make the change.
Once you feel like the site is ready, launch it! It doesn’t have to be completely “done” because a website never is. You can and will continue to add content and make changes to it. The most important thing is that the information is:
- Easy to find
- Easy to understand
After launch, it’s important to celebrate but also keep momentum. Schedule monthly or quarterly meetings with your website team to:
- Review analytics
- Discuss feedback
- Share updates and improvements
- Reinforce best practices
Read on to learn how to do these things.
How to select a website vendor
If you want a great government website, you need a strong vendor to support you. There are a number of vendors that provide content management systems (CMS), hosting, and other services to support your site.
Government websites don’t need to be unique or creative. They need to be accessible, accurate, and easy to understand.
Here’s what you need to look for in a website vendor:
- Deep understanding and commitment to digital accessibility
- Understands this complexity and the unique needs of government
- Easy to use content management system
- Strong security practices
- Transparent pricing
- Mechanisms and a track record for continuous improvement
Put together a website team
The size of your website team will depend on your organization. It might consist of someone from each department, or it might just be you and your vendors.
If you have the chance to put together a cross-departmental team, consider pairing people up from different departments to work on content together. This enables collaboration and learning.
Make sure everyone has the time and support they need to be successful. They don’t need to be a subject matter expert in everything, but they should be empowered to make certain content decisions.
Your website needs a single product owner, to set the overarching vision and be held accountable for the site as a whole. This is different from a project manager role. You can typically rely on your website vendor to manage the project.
The product owner should be empowered to make decisions for the website. They should also have a deep understanding of how it works.
When you have your team in place, establish a team agreement together. This sets shared expectations and creates the foundation for accountability and collaboration.
Set guiding principles
Guiding principles serve as an aspirational North Star to help your team make design and content decisions. They help create alignment so your digital products are more effective. They also ensure a consistent customer experience across your products or services.
Write these together with your team. They should be:
- Reflect your community needs
Read more: Set guiding principles
Understand department priorities
When you work with departments, begin by learning about their content priorities. Once you understand them, you can work on ways to make their key services easy to find.
Meet with each department and ask them:
- Why do people visit your website?
- What information do they need?
- What have they come to do?
- What’s working well with your current web page?
- What’s not working well with your current web page?
- What do you get the most phone calls or emails about?
- What do you wish people could do or learn on their own using the website?
Your conversation with them may reveal opportunities to add answers to common questions and more self-service options.
Use this information to make sure their:
- Department landing page features the most important information
- Service pages contain answers to common questions
Create a service inventory
People come to your website to do things. Some of your services are digital government services. Some are in-person and many are somewhere in between.
Regardless, people should be able to find out about all of your services on your City website.
Work with departments to create a list of your organization’s services with this information:
- Service name
- Who needs it and why
- Supporting tools and information
- Goals and desired outcomes
For each service, or subtask to a service, use an action page to help people complete the task.
Establish a content style guide
A content style guide creates consistency across your website. It also makes sure your content follows best practices when it comes to readability and accessibility.
In most instances, you don’t need to write your own content guide from scratch. There are several great government content guides out there to borrow from:
- 18F content guide
- SF.gov web standards and guidelines
- Canada.ca content style guide
- UK.gov style guide
The 2 most important aspects of your content style guide should be plain language and digital accessibility.
Plain language helps you convey complex information. It helps your readers understand and get what they need quickly, with fewer questions and less confusion.
Everyone writing, reviewing, or posting website content should learn about plain language. This includes knowing how to:
- Organize information logically with headings and lists
- Use simple and direct words instead of acronyms and jargon
- Use a conversational tone with pronouns and the active voice
As a government agency, you need to understand digital accessibility so you can make sure everyone can access your online information and services.
Your content editors need to know how to make content accessible. This includes knowing about things like:
- Accessible fonts, text, and style
- Logical, hierarchical headings
- Descriptive alt text for images
- Color contrast ratios
- Descriptive link text
A new government website project ends with a launch, but your website is never done. Make sure you have mechanisms for continuously getting feedback and making improvements.
You don’t need a big user research budget to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Here are some easy, no-cost strategies:
- Review your site’s analytics
- Promote a simple website feedback survey
- Ask people about their experience using the website
When you get feedback, you should report out about what you did. An easy way to do this is a regular update with a list of things you’ve done and things you are doing to improve the site.
Sharing updates increases public confidence and trust in your agency because it shows that you are committed to improving and transparency.
You website is a key element and representation of your organization. It shouldn’t be an afterthought. Making a great government website takes time, skills, and investment. With the right mindset and support, it’s possible and achievable!
Don’t settle for mediocrity – make the best local government website.
- 6 tips to make your government website project a success
- ProudCity’s government website guide
- Guide to buying local government websites
Get in touch
Schedule a free consultation to learn more how we can help you:
- Find a great website vendor
- Augment your team
- Build a successful new website