“City government websites are usually about the City, but they should be the City, doing the people’s business online.”
Stroll up to a resident of any city in the US and ask them how to get to city hall, and odds are good they’ll point you in the right direction. Most citizens can tell you not just where their city hall is but also why they would go there: to take care of those parts of life that are regulatory, communal, and otherwise associated with being a city resident.
The same can’t be said for city websites. There’s no equivalent to this shared understanding about city hall in the digital space. It’s 2014—a city can’t not have a website. What the website is for, exactly, is usually a lot less clear.
Some cities use their websites to promote the latest news from inside the administration, some have information about where citizens can go and who to talk to in order to accomplish city-related tasks, and some even let citizens perform basic city services online, like paying parking tickets. But there’s no consistency, which means no clear sense of purpose in the minds of citizens. If city hall is the front door to the city, welcoming you to everything the city has to offer, the online version—the digital front door—is boarded up, off its hinges, covered in flyers, and even occasionally missing completely.
This inconsistency has kept city sites from evolving alongside the rest of the Web. You can’t move forward when you don’t know which direction to go. As a result, city websites often lag significantly behind commercial online sites. This disparity comes with a price. When a citizen can easily buy an item on Amazon.com yet struggles to find a city official or pay a utility bill online, it furthers their belief that government can’t deliver.
This can’t be fixed with a simple website redesign. Many cities actually redesign their websites with some frequency, but don’t address the root cause of the disparity. This is why so many of them need to get redesigned just a few years later. What appears on the site is the end result of a mixture of internal expectations, processes, and decision-making. These are what need to change.
To start, cities need to treat digital service delivery as a core component of how the city operates, and their websites as the primary channel for interacting with constituents. Many commercial services can now be done more efficiently and pleasantly online. Citizens expect no less from city services, yet many cities treat their sites as if they were simply marketing brochures. Cities need to commit consistent resources to building and maintaining their digital presence and should make the maintenance of digital services a major part of the daily workflow of all city employees, not just the IT or technology team.
We recognize that this prospect is daunting, and represents a major shift for many cities in how they deliver services. We want to help. We’re proposing to develop a new “Digital Front Door” for US cities: an open-source suite of code, documentation, and practices that cities can use to modernize their online presence. Inspired by the success of the UK’s Government Digital Service in centralizing a wide range of information and services at GOV.UK, the Digital Front Door will allow any city in the US to create a default single entry point for residents.
We’ll work with a select set of cities in the US to see them through these changes, with the intent to make the tools and processes developed freely available to any city. Our approach will be one of mentorship, oversight, co-development, and mutual learning, working to develop the people, the skills, and the services necessary to support and extend their sites. Our hope is that we’ll be able to document how a modern technical engagement for cities should work, in the process creating a template that any city can use to do the same.
Our scope will not be limited to only technical work, but will take on a wide range of challenges critical to re-architecting the role of the website within city government. This includes developing better approaches to technology contracting and procurement; instilling a commitment to agile development methodologies and user experience design principles; finding ways to improve citizen engagement before, during, and after the site launch; and expanding the technological literacy of all city employees so that they support and benefit from the site redesign.
Through programs like the CfA Peer Network and the citizen-led Brigades that have sprung up in recent years, we’ve seen that individuals inside and outside city hall have a huge interest in being a part of this shift. We want to build a system that can channel this effort, harnessing the desire of city employees and invested citizens to make their site, and their city, as good as it can be.