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What Makes the Best Government Website?

The ‘Best of the Web’ winners showcase must-have features for effective public-sector sites.

Last month, Government Technology (our sister publication) released its 16th annual “Best of the Web” survey of state and local government websites. A panel of analysts and current and former CIOs judged nearly 100 entrants on innovation, functionality and their impact on government efficiency.

For the record, the top sites came from the state of Alabama; Orange County, Fla.; and the Louisville, Ky., Metro Government. But beyond the annual beauty contest, the survey offers a snapshot of the state of the art for public websites. So what can you learn from some of the best public-sector websites in the nation? Based on what’s offered by the winners and other highly ranked sites, here are some must-have features:

Mobile friendliness: More and more website visitors are arriving via smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices -- and states will need to accommodate them. In California, for instance, more than 10 percent of all visitors to state government websites in August were mobile users. The percentage rises to nearly half of all users for some individual agency sites. To meet the demand, California and others are using a technique called responsive design, which automatically scales and reformats website content to fit smaller screen sizes. The state also launched an app store on its site, providing citizens a one-stop shop for all mobile apps created by state agencies.

Location awareness: The best websites know your location and show you nearby offices or attractions. Mississippi’s homepage asks users to choose their location from a menu of metro areas within the state, and then allows them to map the location of nearby DMV offices, hospitals, state parks and post offices. California’s site uses location data from smartphones and tablets to automatically give mobile users information tailored to their location. Within a few clicks, the site showed state parks near my location. I could find fishing spots by county and even access a fish-stocking schedule to increase my odds of success.

Live help: As states work to entice more citizens into receiving services online -- and as online services take on more complex tasks -- more website users will need a hand. States like Nebraska and Mississippi let users open a chat window and get help from a live representative. And the mobile version of the Alabama state portal helpfully offers users the option of texting state staff for assistance.

Notification services: A growing number of state and local sites let residents subscribe to email or text-based reminders and alerts. Orange County, Fla., offers a free service that texts subscribers’ mobile devices with alerts for life-threatening weather, severe traffic disruptions, evacuations and other emergency events. The Louisville website combines location information with notification services to give users targeted reminders for activities or information they’re interested in. Residents plug in their address, and access information such as garbage pickup days and crime data. Integrated with the mapping features are sign-up options for alerts on roughly 400 city topics. The city boasts 90,000 digital subscribers to its notification service.

Although most of these ideas have been around for a few years, the top government websites are combining and presenting them in ways that rival some of the best commercial sites. You still have to cover the basics -- the top-rated sites also offered hundreds of online transactions, paid careful attention to site navigation and usability, and included rich links to social media -- but adding some of these other features might earn you bragging rights, and more important, the gratitude of your citizens.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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