The most important change in our approach to digital services as a city is thinking about them as living tools that need to adapt with resident needs, the competencies of our teams, and emergent technologies.
Things have changed
City employees and residents alike have been asking for a “redesign” for years, but this is an old way of thinking about the City’s site. Things have changed since 2007:
In 2007, the majority of visitors accessed Austintexas.gov from a desktop computer. That ratio has reversed, and now visitors using mobile devices outnumber those on desktop computers. Yet building a responsive site is not enough anymore. Today we must think of everything, especially content, from a mobile-first perspective. That page title that runs smoothly across the top of the page on your laptop? It takes up the entirety of a smartphone screen. That’s why we’re creating an editing interface that directly shows content editors how their choice of words and writing style affects the experience of mobile visitors.
In 2007, user experience wasn’t a well-established discipline. We didn’t know how to conduct research with residents or employees, and we didn’t have the resources to learn how to do so. Today, we know that when governments invest in user research and experience design, they realize significant returns. We’ve worked together to create resources like our Testing and Measurement Playbook and establish a communities of practice to learn new skills. We’ve successfully applied human-centered research to the development of City of Austin services such as recycling and permitting — and we’re putting those research patterns to use to refine a broader strategy for digital service delivery.
In 2007, the launch of a site on a widely-used open source content management system (CMS) was a triumph. Our previous website was only editable by software engineers. The new site enabled any any staff member, after simple training, to create and publish online content. While this was a huge step forward, the site has now grown to over 12,000 pages. Our navigation and search functionality has become inadequate, resulting in undiscoverable site content. Meanwhile, content oversight was painful and there was no content strategy or training to support editors and ensure quality and consistency. Today we know that the standard CMS features aren’t sufficient by themselves, so we’re creating training building something that doesn’t simply allow staff to edit the site, but empowers them to deliver great content and services online.
In 2007, plugins were the standard way to extend a large website. Like other organizations who chose open source CMSs like Drupal and Wordpress, we took advantage of modules or plugins to add tools to functionality — forms, calendars, news feeds, etc. — to our web platform. Doing so gave us quick access to different tools, but it came at a cost: Over time, our codebase became bloated and interdependencies prevented us from removing or updating components individually. This slowed our release cycle and we ended up forsaking new features because we were constantly patching a behemoth we couldn’t take apart. Today, we have an opportunity to start anew and leverage a microservice architecture with a slim CMS that can be extended with discrete, independently-deployable applications to create a sturdy, yet flexible, platform.
Things will change
Returning to the idea of a “redesign”: Building a website that beautifully leverages today’s top technologies and meets the needs of residents as well as internal users is a solution — but it has a shelf-life. Instead, we’re setting up a process of continuous research, testing, and development to sustain a constantly evolving digital service platform. Our fourth Digital Service Value expresses this approach: “Champion iterative, data-informed methodologies.”
Part of a larger movement
“If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.” - African proverb
Throughout our discovery process, we tracked the progress of other government websites and reached out to them for advice and feedback.
Outreach to other government organizations is an integral part of our approach — so much so that we consider them partners. Work on every problem space has begun with a look outward: Who has done this? The blogs and podcasts listed below were great starting points to look for answers.
Our next step? Reach out.
Whether via a website feedback form, a tweet, a Medium comment, a Slack channel, a Facebook or LinkedIn message — *everyone we’ve contacted has been not only generous with their time and supportive with their feedback, but happy to help. *They’ve shared everything from slide decks to the inside scoop on vendor products. The things we’ve learned from this outreach have saved us legwork and headaches while sparking ideas — and pointed us to others who could do the same.
Then what? Pay it forward.
The beauty of working in civic technology is that we’re not competitors, we’re collaborators. We don’t have trade secrets protected by nondisclosure agreements — we have blog posts and public codebases. We have the ability to learn from, encourage, and make friends with each other as we work to serve the public better.
Lauren Lockwood, the first Chief Digital Officer at Mass.gov who since leaving has continued to work in civic tech, wrote an excellent piece with thoughts and strategies for outreach to other cities.
Here are some of the resources we found to be great jumping-off points for these discussions:
Blogs & Websites