Is Your Content Really Serving the Public?

Wading through all the Gov 2.0 tweets that fill my stream, I happened to come across a recent venn diagram cartoon making the rounds in the higher education circuit that struck a chord with me as a local government webmaster. The cartoon is a diagram showing two circles: the first titled “Things on the front page of a University Site” and the second “Things people go to the site looking for.” They overlap only on “Full name of school”.

Photo courtesy of xkcd

Replace “University” and “School” with City, County, etc. and I think you can see where this is headed. All too often the home pages of government websites aren’t serving up the information that citizens are actually looking for. I’ve looked at hundreds of local government websites and sometimes even the most basic information isn’t there: “Welcome to Johnson County!” Thanks! Johnson County, Arkansas? Johnson County, Vermont? Johnson County, Delaware?

Where I might expect to find contact info and hours of operation, I often instead find a picture of the Mayor or the City Manager or the County Commissioner.

Every time I see a new municipality or local government agency announce “We’re on Twitter!” or “We’ve got a Facebook page!” I think to myself “That’s great, but if you can’t even get the right info out to your citizens via your website, how do you hope to do it via social media?”

The answer to all the questions this topic raises can be summed up in two words: Content Strategy. This is such an obvious thing that it’s stunning that content strategy is only just now emerging as a new discipline for the web.

One of the great thinkers in this “new” discipline is Kristina Halvorson. She wrote the book on Content Strategy; Literally. Her solution to fixing the type of content issues mentioned above involves five efforts:

  1. Do less, not more.
  2. Figure out what you have and where it’s coming from.
  3. Learn how to listen.
  4. Put someone in charge.
  5. Start asking, Why?

I’m not going to go into details about Ms. Halvorson’s five efforts. For that you’ll need to read her book or go see her speak. From what I’ve seen and heard, for us government folk, number four might be the very first step many of us need to take; and the highest hurdle to clear.

Regardless, now feels like the right time to get involved with Content Strategy. Too often we government web people have been playing catch-up with the rest of the web. The next great leap forward isn’t “social media” or whatever other tool is right around the corner. It’s the content strategy that drives the use of all those tools and more. It’s what our citizens want; have always wanted; and will continue to want.

Consider this your call to arms.

Ron Pringle is a local government webmaster and the President of the National Association of Government Webmasters (NAGW). Learn more about NAGW by visiting www.nagw.org.

Is your city, county, state, agency an exception to the rule? Are you already employing content strategy? Leave a comment and tell me about your successes and/or failures.

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David Paschane

This is a good way to communicate teh difference between the superficial content vs. the content that is valuable to citizens–“what am I getting for my money, who provides services well, and what can I do to help.” This is a fundamental part of our government employee discussion on PASS.

Steven Clift

Ron, this is great.

Is there a collective list somewhere of the most frequently sought information by the public – that should either be on the home page – like the orgs phone number! – or one click away?

When it comes to competition for space on the home page, I am part of the “democracy” crowd working to help the public find out not just what their mayor looks like, but how to participate/get information about decision-making. I call it a citizen-centric “democracy button.”

See my Sunshine 2 post from yesterday.

The “services only” approach I see on many government websites often buries the fact that citizens are the owners of government so to speak. Ironically, this kind of information might not be viewed by local government web folks as candidates for either circle above – unless they perceive or feel a sense of citizen-demand for it. So, what is your take?

Pam Broviak

Great post Ron! You are so right about sites leaving out location information. I notice this a lot on newspaper sites too. They mention the city but no where do you see the state. I have to travel all over their site to figure out what state they are in. Sometimes I never find it. It drives me crazy.

Ron Pringle


No list that I know of; I would guess this would vary a great deal depending on the services of the agency in question, location, etc. Some of my suggestions for that list, if it were to exist, would be:

1. Consistently located contact info
2. Search form near top right corner

If nothing else is right on the home page, at least those two basic items will give the citizen an option to reach beyond the home page for information.

Pam, yes, drives me crazy! Maybe I’m more sensitive to it since Aurora, Illinois is often confused with Aurora, Colorado. From day one we’ve made sure to identify ourselves as Aurora, Illinois on every single page of our site.