The best thing governments can do on the Web is get out of the way. Save the citizen time by making basic government tasks fast and easy.Salford recently received the UK Local Authority Website of the Year 2007 award. It's not surprising. Salford is a very practical and functional website. The homepage is full of useful links under the following classifications: Living, Learning, Leisure, Business, Online Services, Your Council.
If you click on the link Births, Deaths & Marriages, the first thing you see is the following text in red: "Salford Register Office at Barton Road in Swinton is currently closed because of building works at adjoining premises."
Practical, necessary stuff that immediately says: This website is professionally managed and kept up-to-date. The next sentence reads: "The service has now relocated to Salford Civic Centre, Chorley Road, Swinton." And there is a link to a map and directions.
It's not surprising that the Salford website is a success. It has an enthusiastic web team ably managed by John Fox. John used to manage Hants Web, who no less than Bill Gates referenced as government best practice.
What makes the Salford website work is that it is citizen-focused, not council-focused. Thankfully, there are no pictures of the mayor on the homepage. If there is one sure sign of an awful government website it's a picture of a politician on the homepage.
Practically all websites are organization-centric in the beginning. In fact, when I looked at the Salford homepage in 2000 (by using the WayBack Machine) there was a nice picture of the Lord Mayor all decked out in his gown and chain.
It's hard for politicians and others not to see a website as some sort of traditional publicity tool. But if you want to impress citizens, don't show them your face. Instead, show them how to quickly and easily do what they came to do.
A website can be a wonderful way to promote a geographical area both to potential tourists, investors and the local citizens themselves. Designed and managed like the Salford website, it says: This is your website. It's for you. What can we do to help you?
The more you try to directly promote yourself on the Web, the more of a fool you look. But if you help your customer do what they need to do quickly and easily, then they'll promote you. Word of mouth (customer ratings and reviews) is by far the most powerful promotional tool any website can have.
If the council website is working, then the council is working, and everybody benefits (politicians, businesses, and citizens). The success and satisfaction of the citizen must be the primary goal of every government website.
No politician wants dissatisfied citizens wasting time on government websites. The website is not the place where you publish your press releases and five-year plan in a mega-PDF. It is the place where key elements of your five-year plan come to life.
A council website is about citizens doing things, not about the council saying: "Look at all the great things we've done."
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.