Governments have been trying for years to improve digital properties and virtual communications. The United States Digital Services formed in 2014 to improve government websites and digital initiatives. The Federal IT Acquisition and Reform Act passed the same year. Improving customer experience with federal agencies served as a major initiative announced in 2018 from the White House (PDF).
Throw in a world health pandemic, and the mandate is get better, and now. Governments had to transform instantly in a digital sense over the past few months with most of the world glued to their smartphones and the internet in their homes, yearning for daily updates on how they can work, get food and mobilize in their neighborhoods and cities and towns.
Rethinking Digital Assumptions
“The pandemic is a forcing function for businesses to rethink assumptions around which types of information are communicated through each channel,” said Sam Bhagwat, chief technology officer and co-founder of Gatsby, which helps developers build web properties. “On the web specifically, organizations should reconsider aspects like site design, layout, content, information architecture and scalability.”
For instance, should a local health department’s press releases show up on the front page of the city’s website? With the overwhelming demand for news around the pandemic, the local city’s website might be overwhelmed by traffic and go down, according to Bhagwat. “The city’s website was never built to balance the current demand — but is now forced to rethink its web strategy,” Bhagwat said, citing a typical example. “While this is a simplified scenario, the reality is that many businesses suffer from building monolithic websites that are difficult to adapt when a major shift (like a pandemic) arises.”
Governments are providing great case studies during COVID-19 on how to quickly make digital pivots, account for digital infrastructure needs and expand and improve digital communication barriers. Earlier this year we caught up with digital practitioners at Miami-Dade County and today we peek into the efforts of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Related Article: How Miami-Dade County Has Handled Web and Digital Challenges Amid COVID-19
COVID-19 Page Gets the Traffic
The Division of Communications for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) implemented a COVID-19 page on which all information for the agency is posted. It’s a simple Content Management System (CMS) page with important information and links to the rest of the DNR site.
The DNR COVID-19 page is the most popular page on the department’s website. Since its launch March 18 and through June 10, it has gathered 809,898 page views. Of the 5,728,647 link clicks in the team’s website in 2020, 467,656 are from the COVID-19 site, making it No. 1. It's nearly double the next site for visits: 264,396 on the hunting/fishing license app. April 1 is traditionally the license renewal deadline, but it has now been postponed to the end of June, a probable factor for the page's visit decline, according to Marty Benson, APR, assistant director in the Division of Communications for Indiana's DNR.
“We added a site-wide banner at the bottom of all pages with a link to our COVID-19 response,” Benson said. “This was new, never-before-used technology for our DNR site.” And it worked. Most of COVID-19 page’s traffic is from the banner. Some comes from image banners and advisory callouts.
Connection With Social Media
Social media naturally has been an ally for many government agencies during COVID-19. It’s not without its challenges, though, and Indiana is not immune. “One thing we found disappointing is that many social media users would not read a post or click on a link,” Benson said. “Recently, a member of the public found an old post to argue that we didn’t inform the public that our pools had closed. She hadn’t looked at the post date.”
Benson said updating the state’s social accounts shortly after they updated web pages was important to avoid inconsistent messages. “Having consistency in all places is key with rapidly changing information,” he said. “We also put dates on all of our social posts avoiding words like ‘today.’ Information changed daily, so it was important for shared posts to show a date. We also found that answering direct questions like ‘Is camping open?’ with a generic, ‘Please see the latest information at on.IN.gov/dnrcovid19,’ was the best option because the web page was always up-to-date.”
Related Article: Why Digital Transformation Efforts Should Start With Content Management
Getting Creative With Virtual Programs
Also in social media circles, Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources team found a way to be creative after its 32 Indiana State Park properties, although remaining open, lost in-person programming. So, park interpreters quickly transitioned to virtual programming, offering hikes, animal feedings and history tours on Facebook.
“We found that recorded videos did not do as well as live events,” Benson said. “The live events allowed followers to interact.” Virtual programs were listed on Facebook as well as on the agency event calendar. Brown County State Park and Monroe Lake are two good examples of the virtual programming, according to Benson.
“In addition to the virtual programs, properties posted 30-second nature shots,” Benson said. “No narration, just nature views and sounds. These were well received and even prompted the state tourism department to partner with us in sharing and promoting."
Moments of Bliss: These Short Nature Videos Will Help You Relax— Visit Indiana (@VisitIndiana) April 26, 2020
Read More: https://t.co/Cm6BqfVj5f#visitindiana #StayHome #indiana #covid19 #INThisTogether @INdnrnews pic.twitter.com/FiKkVzuxE5
New CMS in the Works
All the while, Indiana's communication team just recently finished testing a new CMS. They expect to transition in January 2021. “Our agency is part of the State of Indiana Government website, managed by the Indiana Office of Technology (IOT),” Benson said. “IOT has purchased the new system and will assist us with the migration.”
Know Your Content Strategy
In pre-COVID times, a common mistake in launching or re-launching a site was to design for the content strategy you hope to have, rather than the strategy you are likely to have, according to Gatsby’s Bhagwat. “A symptom here is ‘News’ or ‘Updates’ sections that seem bare-bones and outdated,” he said.
Today, organizations have the opposite problem: events seem to change faster than our ability to respond to them. “A symptom here is an abundance of content that is not properly indexed or searchable,” Bhagwat said. “If you find yourself publishing content more rapidly than you had planned, it’s important to think through issues like content discoverability and interlinking. Will a casual user be able to find their way from a new web page or property to other relevant information?”
Which Tech Stack Will Best Serve Your Organization?
What's important to keep in mind, generally, when expanding digital infrastructure so rapidly? According to Bhagwat, larger organizations commonly have two or more technology stacks: one official stack for their “permanent” web properties like organization and brand home pages, and an “unofficial” stack(s) with lower development costs and faster turnarounds for short-lived websites like marketing campaigns or product launches.
“In today’s times, where it’s crucial to respond quickly, it may be helpful to lean more heavily on your ‘unofficial’ tech stack(s),” Bhagwat said. “Ask yourself: if you need to launch a website in under a week, could you do that? Do you have a small team with the right skillset? Would budget or approvals be a blocker? Do they have a tech stack they trust?”