Alabama.gov has been recognized by Juggle as one of the top state government sites on the web. Below you'll find an interview with Barrett Gilbreath, General Manager of Alabama.gov
- What has been your role in the development of the Alabama state website?
I am the general manager of Alabama Interactive, the state of Alabama’s official partner for e-government services. Our public private partnership between the state and parent company (NIC) allows us to provide a variety of essential e-government services, including the design, hosting, ongoing maintenance, marketing, promotion, and customer service for the state’s official website, Alabama.gov. Alabama uses a self-funded approach, which means the state’s website and online services are provided without requiring a penny of taxpayer funds.
- Can you give me some background on the history of the Alabama web portal and your e-government initiatives?
We came into Alabama under a competitively bid contract in 2002. The state’s website is the state’s largest publication, so over the last several years we have gone through numerous modifications, changes, rewrites, and redesigns in an ongoing effort to make the site as citizen-friendly as possible. In particular, there has been a recent emphasis placed on social media to get more messages to more people in more places. We have incorporated some of those aspects into the redesigned Alabama.gov, while still keeping in mind that, because it is a state publication, we have to be very accessible.
- You’ve just launched a redesign?
We did, and we’re very excited about it.
- Can you tell me what the primary goals were with the redesign, or some of the things that you were really focusing on?
We wanted to make constituent interaction easier, while maintaining certain aesthetics to which our citizens have grown accustomed when interacting with Alabama.gov. We have always tried to be very home page-oriented in order to provide a lot of information that’s easy to access. A user doesn’t want to be 4, 5, or even 8 clicks into the site before finding what they need. This year, we focused a lot on the site’s look and feel and maintaining as much information on the home page, but doing so in a way that makes it even easier to navigate with icons and buttons. We believe users are coming to the site to get what they need fairly quickly, and if they can’t then there are several ways to conduct live chats with a customer service representative - including on the home page and secondary pages.
- From a marketing standpoint, what are some of the strategies that you have used to spread the word and draw attention to the information and services provided on the web portal, both on- and off-line?
Over the last several years we have had a number of different marketing campaigns. One of the biggest ones we have done was with the Alabama state motor pool. They have hundreds of vehicles in the state’s motor pool, and bumper stickers with the Alabama.gov logo are now on every one of them. These cars are seen by thousands of Alabama citizens driving the state highways each day. That was probably the single largest marketing campaign that reaches the most people. We also put Alabama.gov URLs and calls to action on any state-issued materials, which is especially effective for mailed renewal notices that drive citizens to the online service. In addition, we regularly work with statewide media to promote new services and strategically use marketing swag such as pens, shirts, post-it notes and badge clip holders for state employee ID badges. It may sound like a minor item, but swag really does work to keep the website top-of-mind with citizens and employee users.
- Do you have any other new and exciting features in the works? How else do you see the website changing over the next couple of years?
I think it’s going to be increasingly interactive. Right now, we are using the Alabama.gov Facebook page to present different press releases and timely state announcements. Whether these are for services we launch in this office or applications state agencies launch themselves, we will post those on the Alabama.gov Facebook page. Over the next several years you are going see a trend with more focus on social media and direct interaction. I think from the state portal perspective, you are going to see a large number of new services come online, but you are also going to see more interaction back and forth via the website. Whether its comments, suggestions, complaints, “good job”, “horrible job”, Alabama.gov has become the state’s primary vehicle for communication and collecting feedback from citizens.
- What has been the response from Alabama citizens?
The response to the new Alabama.gov has been outstanding. We have actually been asked to provide the site template for another one of Alabama’s huge service eligibility applications, which provides social assistant services. They liked the look and feel of our website so much that they have asked for the template, which we are obviously pleased to provide for them. The state agency representatives have been absolutely thrilled with it. We have heard from several independent companies as well who are just looking for information about the site redesign. We have done redesigns on this site just about every year for the last eight years. This has been the biggest one to date, and it’s also been the one that has generated the most positive feedback.
- What is the most used feature or service on the site?
Right now, the information we have about the oil spill in the Gulf has been receiving a tremendous amount of traffic. If there is a specific current event affecting Alabama citizens, we will have a link for it on the home page – and we have information on the oil spill on the home page in the quick links rotating carousel. The resources and information section with the maps, weather, travel, tourism, news, is another good example of how we are putting more information at users’ fingertips on the home page. You can get just about anything from that section, which was exactly our intention when we designed it.
- In developing the site, what were some of the biggest hurdles that you have had to overcome?
The acquisition of data can be a challenge. On the front page where the maps are located, we had to get data points from all the different participating agencies, whether it is public libraries, two-year colleges, or four-year colleges. For each resource, we had to approach individual agencies to obtain latitude/longitude or a location address. Other than that, we have a great internal team of developers and marketers who have incredible ideas and are able to quickly execute and create cool new services and information sources. The development wasn’t so hard from an aesthetic stand point, but the back-end data was challenging at times.
- Can you touch upon how many people are using your live chat service, for what purposes, and who manages it?
We manage it and it’s a product that we have won awards for in the past. We always have four people online accepting live chats every day. Usually we have anywhere from 200 to 800 people a month hit the Live Chat button looking for help, and our traffic has increased with the launch of this new site. In previous versions, we only had the live help button on the home page. With the new site, if you navigate to a secondary page, the live chat application is available there also. I think in the past, it might not have been used as much as it could have been, just because a user would always have to go back to the home page to initiate a chat session. This year, consumer feedback has been one of our driving forces behind the redesign. We wanted to make the chat application available in more places. All live chats are answered right here in Montgomery, and our office is located in close proximity with the capitol complex to ensure that we are plugged in to the state.
- Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Alabama’s state portal?
We are extremely excited about all the positive feedback about the new look and feel. We have more than 160 services with different state agencies that can all be found right here on Alabama.gov. We are really thrilled about some of our different Web 2.0 functionality, such as mobile messaging. We now have an opt-in service where you can sign up for SMS text alerts, or mobile email alerts for different notifications. In the near future, we are going to expand our SMS footprint to offer different notifications for different services, like a license renewal that you want to be notified about. We have conversations on the table now about using SMS notifications for current wait times at DMV offices. All of that will be done through Alabama.gov. You will be able to sign up for different services and do all of it right there in a central location. We are really excited about the ability to help people come to the site to obtain information as well as give us information. Two-way communication is the next frontier in eGovernment and we expect Alabama.gov to be leading the pack.