Why cities must be content-first to succeed online

A 4 minute read written by Paul April 29, 2014


Cities need to go to the web first to deliver services to residents, businesses, and visitors. But most municipalities have a long way to go. The first step is becoming great at web content in all its forms: editorial, technical, social, data, and rich media.

Cities are a mile wide and an inch deep

It’s hard to run a city. You have to provide hundreds of services to dozens of audiences, with a single source of (limited) revenue, and leadership that changes completely every few years. No bank would ever lend money to a private sector business with that kind of model.

While we were redeveloping the City of Edmonton website in 2008, I had a long coffee chat with a city planner about the incredible variety of services that a city has to provide. As the conversation wound on, the planner leaned back in his chair and said the words that I eventually repeat to all our municipal clients:

“Cities: we’re a mile wide and an inch deep!”

Cities need to reduce their cost per transaction

The challenge with delivering all these services is creating a great customer experience at the lowest possible cost per transaction.

If the customer experience is poor, then city services (and revenue opportunities) get bypassed for commercial alternatives, are done incorrectly (resulting in expensive revisions), or skipped entirely. But if the cost of transaction is too high, the city can’t sustain the service.

City services need to work together

City services are more efficient if they all work together. It’s like an electrical cable: different types of wires combined to achieve a common goal.

The late British economist Ronald Coase wrote The Nature of the Firm, an explanation as to why companies tend to focus on the cost and complexity of single transactions, and make business decisions at that microscopic level. This is where many cities live and die on technology problems today: they focus on each transaction instead of looking at the entire system of interaction.

Most cities spend their time looking for a single solution: a parking meter solution, a road repair reporting app, a citizen engagement tool, an e-voting solution. Each one solves an immediate problem, but together they fragment the overall citizen experience by providing:

  • An incongruous user interface

  • Too many different modes of access, e.g. website vs. mobile app

  • An inability to get a unified view of transactions with the city

This garden of solutions is a natural starting point for cities, but it’s just an early stage in the development of a web-first organization.

Technology is only how (not why, what, or who)

While most organizations look at specific technologies as the solution to problems, it’s important to remember that a technology is just “how” something is done. Technology alone will never help you decide what should be done, who should do it, or why.

Cities also have to develop maturity and capability in:

  • Service design: planning and organizing the people, processes, systems, and materials involved in delivering a service effectively and

  • Service-oriented architecture (SOA): software design and architecture design patterns that support consistent, organization-wide delivery of services.

Cities need an integrated online service delivery model

Service Design isn’t something that an organization just starts doing. There is a path that a city must take to move infrastructure towards SOA and develop a mature practice of service design. They progress through a commonly accepted hierarchy of government service delivery models, where “informational” is the entry point, and “integrated” is the ideal state:

Informational: one-way information broadcasting

Interactive: some service content made available electronically, such as downloadable forms

Transactional: stable electronic service delivery capability

Integrated: mature, supported, pervasive electronic service delivery and interdepartmental interaction

Why do we want integrated service delivery? It all comes back to that cost per transaction.

Research by organizations like Gartner has shown that the average cost of a telephone self-service transaction is $5.50. The average cost of a web self-service transaction, however, can be as low as $0.10. That’s a pretty compelling case for integrated online service delivery, letting our stretched-thin municipality do more with less.

And it’s not just about cost reduction. A unified online experience can improve accessibility of services, service measurement, and overall customer satisfaction.

Here’s the catch: you don’t get to skip steps. It’s tempting to want to jump right to “integrated”. But an organization without a mature practice in informational service delivery can’t evolve to interactive. And compelling, useful, well-structured, well-governed, measurable content is the first step.

Web-first is the goal. Content is the first step.

A Canadian research group called the Institute for Citizen Centred Services has done decades of research work on government services. Their findings indicate that:

  • The web is citizens’ number one choice for accessing public sector services

  • Speed and ease of use are the most important factors for customer satisfaction

  • A positive impression of an online service actually carries over to users’ beliefs about all service transactions with the organization

A well-designed, easy to use, clearly written website is the best investment a city can make to evolve into a mature service delivery organization. Likewise, poor online experiences make users less willing to engage in complex transactions.

Investing in online service delivery isn’t worth it without a highly usable interface and clear, concise content. The foundations of good information have to come before the interactive or transactional elements of the service.

Find out where you stand

So how do your online services measure up? How much content do you have? How complex are your content templates? How well-written is your content?

Before you can improve, you have to find out what you have today. What makes the web special as a service delivery platform is that you can measure everything, and you can fix what’s not getting you or your citizens appropriate value.  

We’ve developed a web content auditing tool that will help answer these questions. Give me a call to get started – we’d love to learn about where you’re at in your journey.