Viewpoints

Opening your digital doors to citizens

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By Tom Ruff

Government web portals are the digital equivalent of a city hall, county agency or state office, where constituents and business owners can do everything from paying parking tickets, filing taxes or applying for health insurance, to viewing legislative sessions or obtaining information in a public emergency. Whether at the municipal or state level, agencies can do their jobs faster, cheaper and more efficiently by putting government services at the public’s fingertips. Despite the opportunities government web portals present for better service, lower costs and greater transparency, many state and local agencies are not maximizing the full potential of their self-service websites.

A 2015 survey of IT professionals in state and local government identified their top priorities as increasing the number of online services to citizens and businesses and improving mobile access. At the same time, state and local governments are under pressure to provide more services and better support to individuals, communities and businesses.

Although many state and local agencies are eager to open their digital doors to citizens, a number of persistent challenges have prevented them from expanding web services and fully leveraging their portals. The top three challenges cited in a recent survey were poor user experience, security and lack of personalization. To overcome these challenges, government agencies can take the following steps:

Improve reliability, delivery and scalability. It doesn’t matter how good the content is or how well applications address a particular need; if users cannot reliably access a web page and quickly load content, they will likely abandon the portal before it reaches its full potential. As a frame of reference, consider that almost half of e-commerce consumers expect a web page to load within two seconds. To match the availability and performance levels of commercial websites, agencies need highly available connections, regardless of a user’s location; rapid page loads (as a function of network routing and bandwidth); and flexibility (i.e., scalability) to meet rapid fluctuations in traffic volume (e.g., during elections, public emergencies or televised events).
 

Provide consistency and personalization. Nearly 70 percent of respondents in a recent survey said a consistent user experience across multiple locations and devices is an unmet need. In addition, 69 percent of respondents agreed their constituents expect them to deliver a personalized web experience. Some government organizations have an ad hoc approach to web applications and user interfaces. A consistent look and feel — including visual design, functionality, interactions and overall tone of voice — across web applications and devices helps users recognize a legitimate government website, reduces the learning curve for interacting with multiple applications, builds trust and shapes public opinion. It also helps agencies streamline development and quality control. To get the most from a web portal, government agencies must also offer a variety of relevant applications that can be tailored to an individual user’s location, device, personal preferences, personal data and more. 
 

Accommodate various mobile devices and formats.

Agencies have little control over users’ device types, browsers, cellular connections and other factors that impact performance and functionality, yet they must still deliver a positive user experience. Performance optimization tools can help. In addition, agencies can provide content in a format that is easily readable by the user’s device. States such as Alabama, California, Maine, North Carolina and Rhode Island are using responsive web design (RWD) for their web portals, so mobile users can easily view content on virtually any screen. With RWD, a web application sends the same content to every device but includes information that allows each device to adapt and present the content in the best format. When implemented properly, RWD can be a boon to developers; however, RWD can also exacerbate mobile performance issues.


Ensure security and compliance.

With the right security mechanisms, state and local governments can offer a broad range of services through their web portals — from exchanging confidential personal records to accepting or distributing payments. However, recent headlines illustrate the damage that can occur when security measures are incomplete or not implemented correctly. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reported that thieves exploited its popular Get Transcript online application to potentially gain access to approximately 300,000 taxpayer accounts. The U.S. Army’s website was temporarily taken over by cyber vandals who denounced the military. And, in Canada, a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack brought down the government’s portal for general services, as well as a number of other high-profile government websites. To maintain dynamic, reliable web services, agencies must incorporate multiple layers of security into their portals.

Web portals offer state and local governments seemingly limitless opportunities to better serve their community, streamline operations and reduce costs. However, poor user experience, security concerns, and technology and staffing limitations have prevented some agencies from moving to the next level of web portal services. Agencies can open the digital door to citizens with a vibrant web portal that offers innovative services and helps citizens, businesses and workers securely conduct their affairs anywhere, anytime and on any device.

 

Tom Ruff is the VP of Public Sector for Akamai Technologies. He has more than 30 years of IT industry experience, having held numerous executive management positions at Fortune 500 companies. Tom can be reached at thruff@akamai.com

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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

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Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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