There’s no denying that the Internet has changed the way we communicate forever. Most people would rather visit your website than the local city hall. That being said, you need to see your website for what it is: the face of your local government. If you don’t, you’re going to miss the opportunity to connect with the majority of your citizens.
As people become more accustomed to convenience, they don’t want to wait in line or get transferred to three departments before being put on hold. They want quick results, accessible information, and on-demand attention. Creating a website that gives your citizens up-to-date information, easy ways to interact, and the ability to do business with you from the convenience of their homes is one of the most important services you can offer your community.
Your Website Begins and Ends With Community Vision
When you begin building your website, it’s easy to fall into the trap of starting with how you want it to look and then retrofitting everything else. But that’s like designing and building a beautiful car only to discover that you didn’t leave enough room for the engine. It isn’t enough that your website looks pretty and functions well. Of course, those things are important, but they’re not the foundation of meaningful citizen interactions.
Creating a website is a significant undertaking. It’s the crux of how you connect with your citizens, and doing it right requires planning. Everything about your website should support your community needs, goals, and aspirations, which is why it has to be built on a vision. A clear vision for your community is the engine that drives local government, and without it, you’ll start to drift aimlessly. Start by asking yourself:
- As leaders, what do we want for our community? Why do we want it?
- What do our citizens want, and how well is our current website meeting those needs?
- How can we do better?
As you work through these questions, consider the answers from both a government official’s perspective and a citizen’s perspective. This way, you’ll be able to see the shared community vision. Next, take inventory of the tools that are available to help you work and serve more efficiently, then you’ll have a solid foundation to build your website on.
Craft Your Website’s Direction on Common Ground
Before you start working on your website, however, it’s important to assess where you are — both from a demographic and cultural standpoint — and how well your current website is serving your community. Ask for feedback from elected officials, key leaders, government staff, and your citizens, and take advantage of all available technology, including email, social media, surveys, and focus groups.
Filter through the responses with two important questions in mind:
- What is essential?
- Why is it important?
Take special note of the greatest areas of overlap between government needs and citizen needs, and build on this common ground. Finally, put this information together with the community vision you’ve established, and give your website direction by crafting a mission statement and some supporting goals that will help you get there.
West Chester, Pennsylvania, is a great example of a community that built its website around a vision. We worked with local officials to help them create a citizen-focused website around a concept that included better community outreach and improved efficiency, and it was rewarded with a 140 percent traffic increase in the first month alone.
While we all know that the success of your website isn’t about web traffic or other metrics, it is about what they represent: the promise that your vision-based website is helping you build a stronger, more vibrant community. So use your vision as the roadmap that will guide your community in a positive direction.
Mike Honeywell is the chief marketing officer of CivicPlus, an organization that helps city and county governments reach their goals with confidence. The company specializes in web design, human resources management, and emergency preparedness.