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In the News: Communications Strategy is Key to Effective Online Citizen Engagement

 

Via Route Fifty (By Ashley Fruechting, Contributor, October 21, 2015)

Never before have there been so many options for local government to communicate with citizens—Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, text alerts, online newsletters are commonplace today. For most cities, however, their official municipal website is still the glue that holds all these channels together.

Although websites are now recognized as the hubs of online communications, only 34% of local government agencies we surveyed describe their websites as “highly effective.” Why is that? Our experience in working with hundreds of city and county leaders across North America tells us that making today’s municipal websites more effective, accessible and engaging does not require new technology; it requires a new approach.  

In the past, municipal websites were extremely static because the people with current information were not able to update the site on their own. As content management systems became more advanced, flexible and easy to use, local government IT and communications professionals upgraded their websites to allow the various city departments to easily update their own content. However, many were surprised and frustrated to find that just having the ability to update content did not solve their communications problems.

While a good content management system (CMS) helps improve local government websites by making them more timely and better organized, it is not a cure-all. Allowing a large number of staff members to update content without a strategy to determine what information should be posted easily results in a massive, disjointed, online file cabinet of information.

In short, technology alone will not make a website effective—it’s what you do with it that matters most.

Many of the cities we work with have broadened their thinking and are adopting a new mindset for the future and a new definition of “CMS”—Communications Management Systems. They are making their sites more strategic, nimble, interactive and engaging.

Creating a communications strategy starts with research. To develop a website that effectively serves, represents and ultimately delights your community, you must first take a step back to understand how residents use your site today … and how they would like to use it in the future.

Effective engagement begins with focusing on what citizens want … not the internal needs of local government agencies.

Ask questions like:

  • What are current site visitors looking for?
  • How do people want to access information?
  • How can your website be most useful to the people you serve?
  • Who should own and update the various content elements?

Vision Internet recommends conducting website analyses prior to website development to help a local government agency understand what its community wants, needs and values. This process can include stakeholder surveys, homepage heat mapping and site analytics. More advanced research includes mobile metrics, entry and exit page analysis, online community surveys, user testing and usability studies. Leaving no stone unturned, in some locations, we also conduct focus groups on website redesign.

Addressing one question invariably leads to others. To determine what information should be on the site, we first must identify what constitutes “meaningful content” for the people who will be accessing it.

 

Progressive cities like Provo, Utah put citizens first when redesigning their city websites. Provo was aggressive in evaluating its website content, navigation, layout and design in an effort to simplify access to important City information and services. They evaluated every section and page, asking: “Does this fulfill our mission? Are residents asking for this information? How can we make it more meaningful?” As a result, Provo leaders dramatically streamlined their website, reducing it to 400 pages from 4,000. And customized features, like an events calendar with light box pop-outs and a popular Provo311 section packed with useful customer service information, now actively engage citizens. Provo’s new site also is mobile ready, ensuring optimal viewing and interaction on mobile devices.

When Reno, Nevada redesigned its City website, one of their main goals was to encourage citizen engagement. The new site incorporates a number of interactive content management components including e-Notification, multilingual translation, facilities and staff directories, and job application management. Mobile-friendly versions of the new design are automatically displayed on mobile devices. To encourage tourism, a comprehensive community events calendar allows locals and visitors to view events taking place in and around Reno. Hotel booking capabilities were incorporated into the new site for a one-stop shop for visitors. The key to Reno’s success was in the planning phase: they designed their website with the citizen top of mind.

To most people, a city website is the government. When residents find a site that is easy to navigate and offers the content they seek it begins an ongoing conversation that leads to engagement and more effective government.

View the original article on Route Fifty.

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