A blog about digital government, communications, citizen satisfaction & engagement, GovDelivery, and other e-government issues

If three is company, then three hundred is one heck of a party. At last year’s Federal Digital Communications event, “The Transformative Power of Communications,” over three hundred attendees listened to presentations and panel discussions by some of the industry’s leading experts. Featuring a keynote address by Peter Sims, best-selling author of Little Bets, the topics ranged from understanding the benefits of risk and failure, to the changing landscape of digital outreach tools.

thumbnailScott Burns, CEO and Co-Founder of GovDelivery, said in his presentation that “the current state of communications is a milkshake of tools.” We couldn’t agree more with his delicious metaphor. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest are like the sprinkles and chocolate syrup on the email and SMS sundae, and are changing the way government agencies engage with the public. But as Scott goes on to note, communications isn’t really about the tools; it’s about the people. While the main purpose of the event was to provide attendees with new insights and information about a variety of digital communications tools and strategies, it was also about fostering a sense of community and collaboration among government agencies.

Which is exactly why we’re so glad that nearly 90% of event survey responders stated that they “anticipated a need in [their] agency to better collaborate with other programs, other agencies, and/or the public.” As Scott discusses, building a strong, wide-reaching network is one of the most important steps in developing an effective communications plan. We’ve said it before and it definitely bears repeating: you might have the most interesting message in the world, but if you don’t have a network to share it with your message isn’t going to do much good, no matter what milkshake of tools you whip up.

Our CEO said it best, “The reason we exist as a company is to help you communicate.” From website overlays and subscriber management to cross-promotional programs and SMS strategies, we offer our expertise openly and freely to help your unique organization better connect with its stakeholders. But we also exist to help you better connect with each other, too. Since over 80% of survey responders responded that they were either “likely” or “very likely” to recommend the 2013 event to a friend, we’re excited to see what kind of connections are made this time around.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to meet and connect with other government professionals at this year’s Federal Digital Communications event, “The Power of the Message.” Featuring a keynote address by Paul Smith, author of the best-selling book Lead with a Story, a panel discussion with government communications experts, and a presentation by our own Scott Burns, the morning will focus on the power of storytelling as a means of driving mission value and engaging stakeholders to take action.

For more information or to register for the event, click here.

Chances are pretty good that you want to engage constituents more in the activities associated with your organization in order to fulfill your mission. One great way to do that is to offer the public a user-friendly website. But are you happy with your site, or do you feel that you could serve citizens better by making some improvements? For example, can your Web page launch on mobile devices, or are your constituents tethered to a standard computer to gain full access? If you think you could do better and have heard about HTML5 and CSS3 and aren’t quite sure what each one offers, this post will give you some information to help navigate the next phase of Web design and coding.

HTML5 and CSS3HTML Past, Current and Future

To start at the beginning, HTML stands for “Hyper Text Markup Language” and in very general terms is the development language used to put Web pages together. The previous version – HTML4 – has been used since 1997. HTML5 won’t officially be completed until 2014, but there are features available now to test and determine if it’s right for your needs. The biggest difference between HTML4 and HTML5 is HTML5’s adaptability to the device the Web page is being viewed on – whether a mobile smartphone, tablet or PC. In addition, HTML5 loads faster and eliminates the need to use so many plug-ins and add-ons for listening to music or watching videos on YouTube. Lastly, HTML5 offers media playback and offline storage of Web applications.

Take a look at some of the sample Web pages that have been built in HTML5, and you’ll see a user-friendly, simple design approach. Another good concept to take away from HTML5 is that it isn’t considered one large entity, but rather is made up of smaller parts that work together for a better user experience.

As for which browsers are adapting to HTML5, you’re likely already taking advantage of it. Safari (mobile and desktop), Google Chrome and Firefox 3.6 all support at least some elements of HTML5. Internet Explorer 8 supports HTML5 in a more limited capacity. And many Google products already use some features of the next-generation protocol. If you’re using Safari or Chrome, you can check out an experimental version on YouTube that makes use of HTML5′s video features.

One last note about HTML5: It can’t be used on its own for animation or interactivity – it must be combined with CSS3 or Javascript, and that leads to our discussion about CSS3.

CSS Past and Future

CSS stands for “Cascading Style Sheets” and falls under the jurisdiction of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is one of the many international standards organizations that keep things in check on the internet.  CSS introduced Web developers to the concept of creating a consistent approach to how pages were styled, which HTML alone wasn’t able to do. CSS3 was first published in 1999 and builds upon the foundation of the first two CSS generations, dividing features set into separate documents known as modules. Each module can add its own functionality while maintaining backwards compatibility with CSS2. To give you an idea of all the features available, check out this website. Simply put, CSS3 is the presentation layer of a Web page that leads the charge for all of the other technologies buried within. In essence, it is the presentation layer design element.

CSS3 is becoming increasingly popular because of how easy it is to make changes. Plus, it offers more flexibility in presenting website content. Menus can be pretty typical on Web pages, but CSS3 creates menus that make it easier to see what a page looks like before the user fully loads it, thus saving time for the person searching for information. CSS3 also includes options for easier font styling, multiple backgrounds, images as borders, and produces rounded corners and drop shadows without having to use images to create the effect. CSS offers better-looking, cleaner Web pages that download faster than ever before.

CSS3 and HTML5 Working Together

By combining HTML5 and CSS3, your organization will gain the advantage of being able to offer stakeholders and the public a richer experience on your website. Your constituents expect your site to have similar characteristics to a retail site. They want to find information quickly; they want a site that looks nice and is user friendly; and they want to feel like they’re involved with what your organization is doing. And that means being able to find information quickly and easily. By combining the best of both worlds, you’ll be giving your site visitors a great experience – and keep them coming back time and again, ultimately leveraging your website to help meet mission goals.

When you hear the word “trend,” your mind probably jumps instantly to fashion. Every spring and fall, designers pack the runways with models dressed in what is considered to be the latest and greatest in hair, makeup, and clothing. These trends set the tone for what will pop up in stores throughout the globe. However, when it comes to other types of trends, current technology trends can significantly help improve the success of your organization.responsive web design

Trends can help identify what customer’s desires may be, what the current and future markets are like, as well as identify what competitors are up to.

But just like those skinny jeans hanging in the back of your closet, or that iPhone 4 that you bought last summer, trends come and go. They change. And, just like fashions that may look great on supermodels but don’t look so great on you, what works for someone else may not work as well for your company.

After reading this you don’t have to go out and become an expert in all of these trends, or even apply them all to your current web design. The key is to learn a little about each one and see if there’s a way to integrate some of these ideas into your own organization that makes sense with your goals and objectives for success.

Advancements in mobile technology have brought mobile-friendly website trends to the forefront of 2013 trends. Here are a few trends that you should definitely pay attention to:

Parallax Scrolling Sites

Parallax scrolling sites have long been used in video games, but the trend is catching fire in the web design arena. Parallax scrolling allows designers to control the depth of design objects on the website that they are designing. With the help of HTML5 and CSS3, it helps the developer to use animations that look great and cost almost nothing. 3D images are possible as well as faster page speed. It is a cosmetic tool that can impress visitors that have never seen your site before. It’s your “wow” factor.

Large Buttons  

You have heard it before: “Bigger is better.” But it’s true, small buttons can be frustrating. Customers want to be able to see the same images on their mobile device that they do on their laptop at home or work. It shouldn’t be hard for them to see what’s on your website. Make it easier for them by not only making the buttons big, but use color to make them stand out even more. Convenience equals more return visits to your website, and therefore more business.

Vertical Scrolling 

Scrolling typically can be vertical or horizontal. However, vertical scrolling is important for mobile device users. It allows them to scroll down a page and be able to see the menu so they don’t have to scroll back up. It may seem like a no-brainer because it is. It is simple and it saves time.

But, if you’re like me, you feel like 2014 is already knocking on our door. So what are some upcoming trends that you should keep an eye out for in the next year? Here are a couple of design trends that are likely coming to a website near you very soon:

Flat Web Design 

Flat web design focuses on typography and the use of color. Typography has normally been used in the print world and now web designers use it to give their websites a much cleaner look. Imagery is used only when needed. This type of design tries to make the website easier to understand, with cleaner lines. Choosing the correct font type and size can help make the website stand out.

My typography professor in college would ask us to explain why we chose the font we did in our project, trying to get us to articulate why a certain font spoke to us, and what that said about us. The same deliberation should apply to your company with regard to flat web design. Make sure the type of font you choose reflects your company and its values.

Simplified website designs

It’s surprising for a company not to have a website, so having a website isn’t good enough anymore. You need to show visitors what differentiates your organization from others, and your website is a great tool to help you communicate that information. So make it crystal clear. Focus on your top priorities for your website and stick to them and that will help you in developing a simpler website. Keep the website layout as simple as possible, by avoiding unnecessary clutter that will distract the visitor from the message that you wish to convey.

As technology enables us to be more and more mobile, you should also make sure that your organization has a mobile version of its website for customers. The more your customers know about you and what you can do for them, the better.

These are just some of the web design trends that I can see taking off in the next year or so. Although some of these trends may fade, and future trends may not be implemented exactly the way people think they will, trends still provide some guidance to improve an organization’s Web presence. Many times, your organization’s website is the “face” of the organization, giving visitors and customers a clear first impression of your organization. Make it count.

After viewing this short list of current and future design trends, what other trends would you add to this list and why?

GovTechOn Thursday, July 18th, the 2013 Digital Counties Survey awards were announced by the Center for Digital Government in conjunction with the National Association of Counties. The winners were chosen for efficiently and effectively using technology to better the lives of local citizens and improve operations for the counties.

Tough budgetary times can lead to paralysis or provide the opportunity to forge bold new plans that can radically improve the situation on an organization.

At GovDelivery, we love hearing about how local governments are embracing new technology solutions to dramatically improve service to the public and create efficiencies for government employees.

“The annual survey, which recognizes leading examples of counties using information and communications technology, chose winners that overcame tough fiscal barriers to improve government services and efficiency,” writes Digital Communities.

We specifically want to highlight the award winning work being done by our clients who have recognized that using digital communications to communicate with the public, as part of a comprehensive technology plan, is a win-win for citizens and the county.

Congratulations on your well deserved award win!

Photo credit: GovTech

sh Last week, one of the greatest cheesy movies of all time debuted on the Syfy channel. Sharknado.

In case you missed it, here’s the premise. There’re lots of really big sharks in the ocean and they’re all really angry. Due to some weird weather, the sea level begins to rise in Los Angeles and a freak tornado scoops up said sharks and rains them down on the city. 1990’s ‘C List’ stars Tara Reid and Ian Ziering (appropriately named ‘Fin’ in this film) take to the streets to kill the sharks and blow up the tornado using dynamite. Mayhem ensues. A cult classic is born.

I know what you’re thinking, “Hey pal, where’s the spoiler alert warning?!?!”

Sorry about that.

Obviously, this movie is designed to be a low budget, tongue-in-cheek, comedy/thriller that’s the entertainment equivalent of eating a box of Twinkies…at first the idea sounds delicious, but you end up regretting it by the time you’re finished.

The thing that’s most amazing to me about Sharknado is that it actually is a good case study in communications best practices, so here I’ve compiled the top 5 things a cinematic masterpiece like Sharknado can teach us about communications.

1)  Be trustworthy

You might be wondering what could possibly be ‘trustworthy’ about this movie. Well, it’s called Sharknado and features Tara Reid and Ian Ziering battling airborne sharks in a tornado…you immediately know what you’re getting with this one. No one is tuning in thinking this is going to be Spielberg’s next Oscar winner. You watch because you think the idea of tornadic sharks sounds funny.

In the same way, your messages need to be honest and transparent about what you are trying to communicate, even when the information might be difficult to deliver. Always give people the straight answer. People will be far more willing to hear tough information when they feel like you’re telling them the truth, but rarely forgive if they feel they’ve been deceived.

2)  Give your audience what they want

The folks in charge of programming over at Syfy know exactly what their audience is interested in. A quick Google search delivers a long list of awesomely awful movies Syfy has aired. These blockbusters include masterpieces such as Sharktopus, Piranaconda, Dinocroc vs. Supergator, Megapython vs. Gatoroid, and Dinoshark.

Clearly, there is a subset of the population who loves these kinds of movies and keeps coming back for the content they love.

This same approach works for communicators too. At GovDelivery, we advise our clients to offer a wide variety of topics that people might be interested in as subscription topics. That way, people can sign up to get the exact information they want.

For example, one person might go to the IRS website to look for information about filing personal income taxes. Another might search the site to find out how to file business paperwork to get a taxpayer ID number, and another person may want to know about the Wounded Warrior Tax Credit.

By allowing people to subscribe to only the information they find valuable, you can provide excellent customer service without burying people in superfluous information they don’t want or need. Your customers will be happy and you won’t be wasting people’s time.

3)  Spread the word

One of the things that Syfy did expertly with Sharknado, was create compelling content that people wanted to share and then get that message out to the masses. Sharknado generated more than 604,000 tweets in an 8 hour time period on the day the movie premiered. That’s 1,258 tweets per minute! The official movie trailer has been viewed over 2.5 million times on YouTube and the movie poster showed up all over my news feed on Facebook.

While not all of the information you need to communicate is as riveting as Sharknado, efficiently getting your message out to as many channels as possible is essential for ensuring maximum viewers. Try to find tools that will simplify the delivery of information. It will save you time and make sure you are catching your audience on their channel of choice.

4)  Capture people’s attention

No one can deny that Sharknado was attention grabbing. But what if you are talking about something more mundane than flying attack sharks? Just because your message isn’t flashy, doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to jazz it up.

For example, you’ve probably heard how the CDC made emergency preparedness interesting with their Zombie Apocalypse campaign. The US Census Bureau found a way to make economic statistics come alive with the America’s Economy mobile app. The Virginia Tourism Association tapped into the growing craft beer trend and created an interactive map for a craft beer tour. You know there’s an audience out there for that idea. Louisville, KY decided to try new ways of capturing people’s attention by putting city content into a new channel where people were already congregating. The Washington DOT even found a way to make traffic information compelling by using a map goof-up to highlight road improvements.

Before pushing your information out there, take a few seconds to think if there’s a way you can make your information more compelling. If you can capture people’s attention, you will have a better chance of them remembering what you want them to know.

5)  Don’t be afraid to have some fun

Sharknado is a great example of having some fun with your content. No one expects this movie to win any awards; it’s purely for entertainment purposes.

Remember your main goal as a communications professional; you are trying to get people to engage with your content, sign up to get additional information from you, and come back for more in the future. If everything you put out is safe, boring to read, boring to look at, in outdated mediums and doesn’t move anyone, most people won’t be back.

Even serious government organizations can have some fun every now and then. And, finding new and exciting ways of getting your material in front of the eyes of the public should be fun for you. Ask yourself, “What would happen if I went this direction to make my message more engaging?” Don’t stress yourself out with this. Take it slow. Bite off small pieces at a time and get creative. Maybe you’ll come up with something even more interesting than Sharknado.

There you have it, the top 5 things a cinematic masterpiece like Sharknado can teach us about communications best practices.

What things would you add to my list?

Oh, in case you missed it, Syfy is re-airing the movie in August. And in case you’re already a diehard fan, Sharknado 2 is already in the works! Syfy is even offering a chance to get in on naming it. You can submit your title ideas via tweet to @SyfyMovies using #Sharknado.

By Ben Ortega, Senior Software Engineer at GovDelivery

On June 1st we celebrated the first annual National Day of Civic Hacking, a day dedicated to leveraging technology and open data to improve communities.

Hard at Work Hacking at DevJam in Minneapolis

Hard at Work Hacking at DevJam in Minneapolis, Open Twin Cities

Not satisfied with a typical single day event, our local civic-minded techies at Open Twin Cities organized Hack for MN, a weekend-long hackathon and competition where more than 100 techies and other interested parties teamed up and spent the weekend planning, brainstorming, and implementing ideas and tools to improve our communities.

Everyone got together Saturday morning at DevJam headquarters in south Minneapolis after having spent the prior days and weeks discussing project ideas on the web. Each project idea was assigned to a table, and after some opening remarks from organizers and local government officials, participants began to self-organize. People flowed from table to table discussing ideas; some projects never quite got off the ground, and others emerged spontaneously from chance meetings and conversations.

Once the afternoon arrived, tech-heavy teams went right to work crunching data and planning applications. Other teams took a service design approach, thinking carefully about big ideas such as technology access or sustainable development and brainstorming about how to better connect communities, and all the different personas, with available resources.

The teams spent most of Saturday afternoon coding and whiteboarding; the sound of collaborations and talk of the best open data sources hummed at lightning speed. Fortunately for us, the DevJam space (a former café) offered plenty of sunlight and open air, which lightened the intense hacking going on. We even got a surprise visit from an ice cream truck, which gave everyone a chance to relax for a bit.

By Sunday afternoon, the crowd had thinned out a bit as teams began to run out of gas, but nine teams powered through and presented their projects, which drew inspiration from a variety of community needs and data sources:

  • A system to find your polling place using SMS
  • Connect Me Minneapolis, a system for cataloging and discovering community technology assets
  • Solvabl- a website for tutoring and mentoring high school students interested in developing technical skills
  • An open Wi-Fi database for community Wi-Fi finding and geolocation use
  • Code For Neighbors- a localized neighbor directory/alert system
More Hacking at Hack for MN Event

More Hacking at Hack for MN Event, Open Twin Cities

I was honored to serve on the judging panel, especially since we were able to award prizes to every team that made it to the end of the hackathon.  Prizes included meetings with local government officials or software entrepreneurs to determine next steps and subscriptions to GIS tools. All participants also received credits towards tech books, cloud computing and consulting services to continue developing their ideas.

All in all, it was great to see to both seasoned and aspiring hackers alike engaged and working together to tap into the potential of open tools and public data. It’s also inspiring to see development on several projects that have continued beyond the hackathon. It was great to represent GovDelivery as a judge and advisor, and I look forward to many years of hackathons to come.



By Kathy Kyle, Digital Communications Consultant, GovDelivery

A recent BBC article explores how the National Health Service (NHS) has spent £13 million on public relations and whether the Trust and the public is receiving value for money. Some NHS Trusts have commented that the use of PR firms is necessary to educate the public on health issues, especially with regard to high-profile public health campaigns.

There is no doubt that when it comes to public health, proactive, timely, and targeted communications can raise awareness, prevent illness, and inform the public, keeping them safe and healthy. Whether it is a campaign regarding healthier healthchoices around smoking, caffeine, or alcohol, an urgent international health crisis, or every day communications with the public to keep them healthy and safe, the value of proactive communications can – and should be – evaluated. Government healthcare organisations and institutions can be much more effective with digital communications by measuring reach, engagement, and in-person visits. This not only bolsters public trust in the system and saves funds, but can dramatically improve healthcare outcomes.

NHS communications staff can potentially demonstrate the return on its digital investment on a campaign basis by measuring any correlation between the reduction of reported illnesses, office visits, and avoidable contact and the increases in the number of people subscribed to digital communications, engagement rates with digital messages, web traffic, and social media follows.

Instead of focusing funds and efforts primarily on PR campaigns, NHS could complement its outreach efforts by maximising direct connections with the public using an integrated digital communications platform. This kind of platform is available at a fraction of the cost of hiring an external PR firm. GovDelivery Digital Communication Management (DCM) is one system that has been successfully used for proactive public health programmes in the United States by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Centres for Disease Control (CDC), and many state Departments of Health – as well as in the UK by the Health Safety Executive (HSE), Health Protection Agency (HPA), Department of Health, Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), and the Food Standards Agency (FSA). These government institutions and organisations are directly connecting, educating, informing and engaging the public without spending a fortune – and their internal staff are easily managing the message and the process.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s goals include safeguarding public health by ensuring that the products they regulate meet required standards, that the products work and that they are acceptably safe. From a communications perspective, MHRA must ensure accurate, timely and authoritative information is provided to healthcare professionals, patients and the public.

MHRA uses GovDelivery DCM to send nearly 28 million messages to opt-in subscribers; more than 50,000 stakeholders around the UK have self-subscribed through the Agency’s email alerting service. MHRA must ensure a high message delivery rate due to the time-sensitive and potentially life-saving nature of its alerts. communityIf you’ve ever had to ensure that a message was delivered quickly, with metrics to ensure it was delivered, you know how difficult this can be to manage in-house. There could be serious consequences if messages are delayed in reaching pharmacists, physicians and the public. By partnering with GovDelivery, MHRA leverages GovDelivery’s active management of relationships with all major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on behalf of over 550 public sector entities worldwide. MHRA is then assured a high deliverability rate, and MHRA communications staff can spend their time engaging directly with constituents, ensuring potentially life-saving, time sensitive medical and drug-related messages are delivered, instead of troubleshooting why messages are caught in filters and flagged as spam. View the complete MHRA success story.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a $941B organisation with over 65,000 staff, invests in health care, disease prevention, social services, and scientific research. HHS was already reaching a large audience through its use of GovDelivery email alert subscriptions, when the H1N1 pandemic flu outbreak threatened the United States. HHS needed to reach the largest audience possible to ensure individuals were kept informed and safe.

Email subscriptions to Flu.gov information increased more than ten times the normal rate due to higher interest as well as collaboration with CDC and other partners in the GovDelivery Network. Average new subscribers exceeded 3,000 per day versus the previously established average of 215. Over one million email alerts were sent to subscribers at their request regarding H1N1. Emails included “Share This” links with content being repurposed and shared over 120 times via social media channels. HHS also cross-promoted the email alert service with social media networks. Twitter links embedded in email alerts generated more than 10,000 clicks and helped boost HHS’s Twitter followers. View the entire HHS success story.

The difference between proactive digital communications and a PR campaign without measurable impact has more than just financial repercussions. Now more than ever, investments in communications must be made with the goal of building and sustaining public trust and health.

Kathy Kyle
Digital Communications Consultant, GovDelivery

Kathy can be reached at kathy.kyle@govdelivery.com or on Twitter @bonominiyogini.

By Kathy Kyle, Digital Communications Consultant, GovDelivery UK

The whole of the United Kingdom experienced a week of widespread travel disruptions and school closures due to unusually inclement weather.  The extended forecast promises additional wintry, blizzard-like conditions – with as much as seven inches of snow, rain and ice over the next week. One of the worst incidents reported was last Wednesday, when 30 people were forced to spend the night in a shelter after becoming stranded when the A39 between Bridgwater and Williton in Somerset became impassable.

More than ever, it is critical that government agencies at the national and local level efficiently and effectively alert local residents about floods, school closures, and road and mass transit disruptions.

At GovDelivery, we are finding that the snow has had a tremendous impact on the uptake of subscribers to government services and information, with increases in local authority subscriptions topping 3900% this past week. In one day, West Sussex received 1,447 new subscribers interested in receiving alerts. As we expected, there was an upward trend in subscriptions to the Highways Agency (HA) and the Met Office, with increases in alert subscribers of up to 180%.

West Sussex County Council website

More compelling than the expected increase in subscribers to weather and transit-related services was the surge in citizens subscribing to central government organisations, whose missions are completely unrelated to the impact of extreme weather. For instance, the National Audit Office (NAO) experienced a 16% increase new subscribers over the latest snowy three-day period, and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) saw a 114% increase over the course of the same week.

This demonstrates the power of the GovDelivery Network, a bi-directional relationship formed between government organisations that use our integrated, seamless digital communications platform. Visitors have the opportunity to opt-in to alerts regarding a variety of government services. This cross-promotion of government services drives subscriptions, helping organisations reach dramatically more people, especially those who may have never known about or thought to search for a specific government topic.

Derbyshire County Council, who is using GovDelivery to reach more residents regarding school closures, experienced an increase of 956 subscribers in one day. Other councils – Sheffield, Herefordshire, and Crawley Borough – all experienced increases between 575% and 752%, with the majority of traffic to their websites coming from HA, the Met Office, and Department of Health.

With nearly 1.5 million subscribers in the UK alone (41 million worldwide), the GovDelivery Network not only drives engagement, but connects citizens to potentially life-saving information in an efficient, effective way through a simple, opt-in subscription process.

With pending severe weather across the country, it is more important than ever to leverage the GovDelivery ecosystem to maximise direct connections with citizens.

Learn more about how central government and local authorities are reaching more people.

Even in this computer-driven age when information is virtually at our fingertips, many people still discover that finding the answer to a simple question can be a protracted, frustrating, complex process.

Unfortunately, in many cases, government agencies are a prime offender in perpetuating this information muddle.

Consider many government websites: Users go to a government site with a simple query, only to find themselves confronted by pages of dense type, dozens of confusing links that lead them deeper, and obtuse bureaucratic language that makes it impossible to decipher which section of the site might provide the sought-after answer.

After spending time searching without finding what they need, it’s no wonder that users finally give up in frustration and call the help desk to find someone who can provide them with that simple bit of information.

The result? An irritated customer who’s likely to view his or her experience as a typical example of government inefficiency and bloat. From the government side, there’s a corresponding and pronounced rise in costs for staff time in order to field that frustrated caller’s request for information.

In the end, both sides lose.

So what’s the problem? Why do so many government agencies fail to provide their citizens with an efficient, satisfying communication experience?

The answer may lie in the old-world model of how government agencies typically communicated with their customers or stakeholders. In the old days—read that, “before the Internet”—government agencies often assumed the role of the mountaintop, and pronouncements were delivered from that lofty position to the masses. There was only one arrow in that communication diagram, and it pointed down to the customer. Today, however, customers are more proactive. They want answers to the questions they have, and they want that information to be available and easy to obtain.

A few forward-thinking government agencies manage to get this dance right. And the latest attempt to provide customers with easy access to government information is the United Kingdom’s GOV.UK portal.

More than 60 million people live in the UK, making this site the potential one-stop destination for an extraordinary number of users. If the administrators behind the site had followed the too-typical government habit of defaulting to outdated web design or confused information production, the repercussions could have been literally overwhelming.

Instead, the web site is an exceptional example of simplicity paired with robust usability, with a tagline that succinctly explains its mandate: Simpler. Clearer. Faster.

Rather than confronting users with a bewildering array of choices, the home page has a simple, clean design that breaks information into sensible segments that promise to answer the type of questions the public might have.

Gov.UK home page

In the top third of the page, links are prioritised and offer one-click access to topics such as “Driving, transport and travel”, (which houses information about common issues such as car taxes and passport information), or “Employing people” (which answers questions about pay, contracts and hiring). Other links are also a model of brevity and conciseness, such as “Disabled people: Includes your rights, benefits and the Equality Act”.

The middle third of the home page hosts a highly visual offer that will likely rotate as the site grows. For now, it offers users to “Take the Tour” of the site (since it is fairly new), which leads to a brief video explaining the various services that the government offers.

The bottom third of the page is split into three columns to maximise content, displaying a “most active” list of links and news.

This site combines good, user-focused design (intuitive, clean, and easy to read) with Web tools consumers are accustomed to (brief video overviews). The people behind GOV.UK are now taking their efforts one step further: providing stakeholders with proactive information delivery. They’ve recently started using GovDelivery Digital Communication Management (DCM) to provide email notification services for Inside Government, a section of GOV.UK that holds content related to government policy information. As a multichannel, digital communications platform, DCM helps stakeholders (researchers, media, analysts, etc.) stay up to date when any of that content changes. They can choose topics of interest to receive notifications when specific content changes, drawing back users to the website. The GovDelivery platform is currently driving successful results for more than 550 government agencies worldwide, including other UK-based organisations such as Parliament, Driving Standards Agency, Department for Business Innovation & Skills and the Met Office.

Combining good design principles, methodical information delivery and cutting-edge technology tools, the GOV.UK website is giving its users exactly what it promises: simple, clear and fast information.

As a side note, why not borrow design tips from the best of the best? This infographic recently released by Go-Globe drew together home page design elements for the top Fortune 500 companies. Unsurprisingly, many elements are similar to the GOV.UK design.
Go-Globe Home Page Infographic

If you haven’t heard of Responsive Design yet, you will soon enough. Responsive Design is a new way of dealing with the multitude of devices people are using to view digital content. Responsive Design uses the functionality of CSS3, combined with Unobtrusive JavaScript, to provide an optimal viewing experience across multiple viewing platforms (desktop monitors, ultrabooks, tablets and mobile phones) for websites, blogs and email.

So far, Responsive Design has not been adopted by very many government organizations yet, but as new websites are designed, more and more will be adopting Responsive Design.

Three great examples of what I’m talking about:

1) Here is how Michigan’s homepage looks on my desktop:

Michigan web

And here’s how it looks on my phone:

Michigan Screen shot

2) Rhode Island looks great on a desktop

Rhode Island Web

And on mobile

Rhode Island Mobile Site

3) This very blog uses Responsive Design. Here’s how it looks on a mobile phone

GovDelivery Blog

Two main elements that make up Responsive Design

1) CSS3 Elements

Responsive-Designed sites use the most contemporary CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) design elements to adjust the layout of your digital content to the appropriate screen size. These apply to web content as well as email.  Here’s how Wikipedia explains them:

  • Media queries allow the page to use different CSS style rules based on characteristics of the device the site is being displayed on, most commonly the width of the browser.
  • The fluid grid concept calls for page element sizing to be in relative units like percentages or EMs, rather than absolute units like pixels or points.
  • Flexible images are also sized in relative units (up to 100%), so as to prevent them from displaying outside their containing element.

Basically, to summarize, instead of creating absolute sizes for items, you size them in relation to size of the browser displaying your content. So, instead of setting a table to be 700 pixels wide within a 1,000 pixel web page, you set the table to 70% of the width of the browser. On your desktop, that would be 700 and 1,000 but on your smart phone that might be 350 and 500. You get the idea.

2) Unobtrusive JavaScript Elements

Unobtrusive JavaScript is a new concept that doesn’t have a consistent, agreed upon set definition yet, but it’s generally accepted that there are 2 main components. (This gets a little more technical, so I will try to summarize how Wikipedia lays it out.) Unresponisve JavaScript applies to web content only. Putting JavaScript in email is a no-no!:

  • Separating the JavaScript from HTML – keep JavaScript independent of other code. Think keeping all your JavaScript in a separate area and not inline with your HTML.
  • How the JavaScript “degrades” – Content should be available without all of the JavaScript running successfully and the JavaScript should improve the HTML. When there are instances of people using an unusual browser configuration, things will still render.

So what do I do with all this and why should I care?

Excellent question to ask, especially for the non-tech-nerds, reading this. There are 4 main reasons Responsive Design is the way of the future:

1) We all know smart phone adoption is going to continue to grow in years to come. The same is true of tablets and any other yet to be invented digital technology. As the screen size variations begin to reach exponential numbers, it will become impossible to design digital content that work well on all the different variations without Responsive Design. So, you can either go with Responsive Design or have a website, blog or email that looks good on one platform and horrible on all the others. Also, since your one site works on all platforms, you don’t need to maintain completely separate mobile sites, saving your web team time and money.

2) The Federal Digital Government Strategy lays out several initiatives that Federal agencies will have to meet. Nearly all of the initiatives have a component of increased accessibility for mobile platforms. And, as goes the Federal Government, so goes the rest of government.

3) Responsive Design is a great tool to allow you to have nice looking digital content and still remain 508 compliant. Gone are the days of needing to sacrifice design for accessibility. With Responsive Design, everyone can enjoy the benefits of a great website or email.

4) It helps with SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Since you site looks better and is easier to navigate with Responsive Design, people are less likely to leave right away and will spend more time browsing your content. That directly translates to reduced bounce rates and increased time-on-site metrics. If they are leaving less and spending more time your site, it gives you more time to get them to sign up receive your content in the future, thus converting them from browsing into some you can engage. Finally, having a completely separate mobile version of your site could be seen as having duplicate content on your site, something search engines really frown upon.

I’m sure there are several other benefits I’m missing out on but this is enough to get you thinking. When it comes time to redesign that website, make sure start with Responsive Design from the get go. Otherwise it might be extremely painful to come back in after your site is finished and retrofit Responsive Design techniques.

Speaking of Responsive Design, check out this short video of GovLoop Founder and President, Steve Ressler, talking about how Responsive Design in being implemented in the Federal government.

Steve Ressler talks about the Digital Government Initiative from GovDelivery on Vimeo.

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