Advocacy for simple, text-based government websites

Three things have come to define the public sector IT community: consolidation, modernization and simplification. Consolidation recognizes that you have too much of something, modernization recognizes that those things have passed their useful life, and simplification recognizes that things have become too complex.

The internet and email were both still new when digital government first appeared in the 1990s. Government adopted them as they went, with built-in assumptions and all. Over time, some of the early HTML excitements fell out of favor and some legislatures sought to ban cookies, but most public agencies opted for the web feed – adding heavy graphics, photographs (including portraits required of the elected officials in charge) and even animation. . Often through benign neglect or adapting to organizational structures that made little sense outside of bureaucracy, navigation could become complex and inconsistent.

But compared to queuing, online services have saved time and effort to get things done with the government. Today, thanks in large part to the ubiquitous use of cell phones to browse the web, many of those decades-old design conventions are being reimagined. According to analytics.usa.gov, which tracks federal government web traffic, at the time of writing, 53% of the 5.4 billion visits to federal sites in the past 90 days were made on a mobile device.


Luke Fretwell, CEO of the civic engagement platform ProudCity, said in a conversation about the aesthetics of government websites that recognizing the mobile majority – along with the government’s obligation to render information and services easily accessible and widely available – are at the heart of site design and construction. for public use. Old-school graphics and a “more is more” approach born from a team of developers and designers oppose it. “Government websites aren’t really ours, are they?” Fretwell asked rhetorically. “If you want to be an artist, you know, take a painting class.”

The answer in these mobile times is the simplification and reinvention of these plain text public sites. Text can be beautiful – witness harvardlawreview.org – and perfectly functional, as boston.gov shows. Text combined with .gov domains and iconography evokes official government status and conveys trust to users. Such a combination on a light-touch site was the design criteria for covid.gov, a site that scaled well; received positive feedback from users, decision-makers and the press; and provided much-needed information and assistance during the pandemic. The Social Security Administration is also working on a text-only site at beta.ssa.gov – the page is attractive, short, fast, and mobile-optimized.

The Lone Star State introduced Texas by Texas (TxT). Aside from the wink and wink at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, TxT is shifting communication and transactions between public bodies and residents from email to SMS – instant, uncluttered and responsive. . The text-based digital help desk is in its infancy, but its operators hint at big plans and potential for transformation. Text messages differ from email in two important respects: almost all are read (98%) and analysis by Gartner indicates that nearly half (45%) elicit a response. In a world of communication burnout and fatigue, the beauty of text lies in its ability to penetrate and engage where other channels do not.

Add artificial intelligence to the massive amount of government-generated text, and you have a new and potentially powerful approach to modernization. The MIT Technology Review reports Salesforce researchers who have trained software to accurately summarize long texts, including those created and owned by the government. According to the review, “It uses several machine learning tricks to produce surprisingly consistent and accurate snippets of text from longer chunks. And while it’s not as good as a person, it does indicate how condensation of the text could eventually become automated.

There’s a lot of promise in all of this to make government information usable and useful. And text is literally and figuratively the lingua franca of the digital world. We are just a little behind in decluttering digital government to realize its full potential for serving all.

GoverningThe opinion columns of reflect the opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of Governingthe publishers or the management of. Government technology is a sister site of Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.

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