Attorney and author Kathy Biehl practiced law privately in Houston, Texas for 18½ years before relocating to New York City in 1998. She has taught legal research and writing at the University of Houston Law Center and business law at Rice University. A member of the State Bar of Texas, she earned a B.A. with highest honors from Southern Methodist University and a J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, where she was a member of Texas Law Review and Order of the Coif. She is co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press, Nov. 2000), with Tara Calishain.
Web Critic evaluates legal research Web sites in terms of the information they convey, how effectively they convey it and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet — or don’t .
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The Golden Globes aren’t the awards that have caught my attention lately. Geek that I am, I actually spend more time (perish forfend!) staring at a computer screen than at a television. Ever since I spent an intense week surfing through every single state home page in succession, government Web site content and design has been a peculiar interest of mine. I have been known to jump up and yell for others to come and see when I’ve come across a particularly novel or useful interactive feature — especially one that saves what might otherwise be hours of waiting in line or on hold.
While my experiences have yet to inspire anyone to match my level of enthusiasm (which is probably just as well), they have given me a good overview of the governmental approach to home pages, which are even more varied than courthouse architecture. Some have cluttered or otherwise regrettable aesthetics. Some carry on the time-honored tradition of bureaucratic red tape by burying information with less-than-self-evident language, complicated page structures, and annoyingly indirect navigation tools. And some use the Web to save themselves and their citizens a lot of time and money
So when I learned that Government Technology magazine had singled out three state and three local government Web sites as “Best of the Web 2000,” I had to check them out. The state winners were North Carolina (NC @ Your Service); Georgia; and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, while local honors went to the City of Seattle; the Clerk-Treasurer’s Web Site for Douglas County, Nevada; and the City of San Jose Permits Online.
These awards were not the result of nominations or an independent survey by the magazine; instead, each of the winners had applied to be considered. According to the magazine Web site, they were judged for their innovation (using online technology to deliver services), efficiency (time savings), economy (money savings), and functionality (ease of use and improved citizen access). Disclosing the criteria and identifying the winners is as far as the Government Technology site goes, however. It doesn’t provide any information about the sites, much less spell out (or even hint at) how they met the criteria.
It doesn’t take much time surfing through the sites to grasp the rationale behind the awards. In varying ways, each of the winners demonstrates an understanding of the helpful role that a government home page can play.
Though each has quite a distinctive appearance, the state government pages have a number of important traits in common. Their top pages are simple. Whether they use index headings or hyperlinked graphics, they present resources in a neatly organized layout that is easy to grasp at a glance. (The first place winner, North Carolina, uses only three major headings, which it calls portals — citizen, business, and state employee — to umbrella its resources.) They flesh out this simplicity with hierarchical indexes or nested headings, which reveal more possibilities under each heading as you click deeper into the site. The tidy index layout on North Carolina’s portal pages looks much like FindLaw or Yahoo!
Another laudable trait is offering multiple routes to the same resources. At the Georgia page, for example, you can reach the Secretary of State’s section through the indexes under either Legal & Law Enforcement or State Government. Too, all three state winners make certain key tools or information available from every single page. Each subpage within the Virginia DMV site has an identical frame that allows you to jump to any of the choices listed on the top page; each of the three “portal” subpages at the North Carolina site links to the other two. At all three sites, every page includes a search engine and contact links; North Carolina and the Virginia DMV also have site maps.
Tasteful use of graphics is also the norm. Graphics aren’t necessary for a Web site, of course, but bad or ill-conceived ones can lessen the experience. These three sites illustrate successful uses of graphics for creating atmosphere and more. A changing photograph (an idyllic, snow-covered forest greeted me) graces North Carolina’s welcoming page. A lovely composite graphic serves as a unifying theme for Georgia’s site. At the top of each page, the image combines the glistening capitol dome, a stream, a rocking chair on a porch, and an inviting mess of peaches. Graphics are part of the navigational system at the Virginia DMV, where strikingly designed banners lead to personalized plates, voter registration, and the governor’s “no car tax” center.
And each of these sites places special emphasis on interactivity. Georgia draws attention to its online services by giving them a spot in the welcoming page index, then devoting a long page to detailing the electronic applications available through the site (such as professional license renewal, ordering corporate data and documents, and paying Georgia Public Broadcasting pledges.) North Carolina accepts online applications for several types of licenses and permits and offers searchable business databases. The Virginia DMV’s secured server handles every imaginable transaction, from license renewals to address changes to reporting vehicle sales.
Most of these traits are also true of the local government winners. There’s a much wider gulf between these sites than between the state level winners. In terms of design, content, and interactivity, the Seattle site ranks with the best at any level of government, while the other two are more bare-bones. Still, all three provide in-depth information in a concise, well-organized way. Douglas County’s marriage license FAQ is exemplary, while San Jose clearly discloses the requirements for and steps in its online application system.
Looking at these sites has made me recall advice I once heard from an art instructor: When visiting a museum, try to figure out what it is about a particular piece that made someone decide to put it there. Applying this tactic to Government Technology’s award winners could be useful for other Web designers. While I am not advocating that other government sites jettison their formats and put up replicas of any of the winners, it could be enlightening to spend some time looking at the design and content choices these sites have made. By and large, they work.
ã Kathy Biehl 200 1.