There was a time — not even that long ago — when a website functioned as little more than a billboard and a telephone directory.
Today, however, a website is a crucial element for every company, brand, artist or individual looking to do business. It tells your story, it brings customers and followers into your business and your life, and it helps define your relationship with the public.
The same is true for government – or at least it should be. Too many governments seem to be slow to evolve online, continuing to use their websites as simple bulletin boards, or concealing valuable information behind outdated or user-unfriendly interfaces.
So it was with pleasure that we encountered Napa County’s new web design at countyofnapa.org.
While the old one was hardly the worst government website around (or even the worst one in the county), there is no question that it was sterile, old-fashioned and often hard to navigate, even for people familiar with the general structure of the county government.
The new site, fortunately, seems to have the average resident firmly in mind. While you can still navigate by visiting the page of a particular department or official, as the old system was structured, there is now a prominent “Popular services” section, which takes viewers to an easy and intuitive list of most of the kinds of services county residents might need, from applying for a business or marriage license to reporting potholes or possible abuse of children or the elderly.
It even has a “Live chat” function where an operator can answer questions or direct people to appropriate services.
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For those interested in a deeper dive into bureaucratic details, there are easy-to-follow links to get to budget documents, meeting agendas, audit reports, county policy documents and more. Such documents were available previously, but the new design makes them far less arduous to find.
The new design is the fruit of a four-year, $197,250 contract with CivicPlus, awarded last year by the Board of Supervisors, for its cloud-based management system and hosting services. The Kansas-based company works with 2,500 government agencies on their websites.
CivicPlus is currently working on a similar update for the website of the city of Napa, the last of the county’s five municipalities to undertake a modern streamlining of their official websites.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the new county web design is the “Stay notified” section, where residents can sign up for dozens of different kinds of news alerts, by phone or email, ranging from emergency services to events at the county library branches. Local businesses interested in contracting with the county government can sign up for alerts on new procurement opportunities. Developers, neighbors and activists can sign up for alerts about meetings and actions from planners and commissions. People interested in health or criminal justice issues can receive alerts from relevant agencies and commissions.
A website update may seem like a trivial matter, but in this case, we believe it was important for us all, and money well spent by the Board of Supervisors.
This kind of connectivity with the public is a boon to our democracy. It makes government more accountable and transparent, and it empowers the layman residents to know what’s going on, educate themselves, and let their voices be heard.