HuntsvilleAl.gov has been recognized by Juggle as one of the top city government websites in the state of Alabama. Below you'll find an interview with Trent Willis, Chief of Staff and Communications in Huntsville's Office of the Mayor.
- HuntsvilleAL.gov is a top-notch web portal; what has been your role in its development?
As Chief of Staff and Communications, my role was to make sure that our website was our most effective communication tool. We had heard complaints that previous versions of the website were difficult to navigate and not “user-friendly” – so we wanted to address both of those issues head-on. Unlike most government websites, ours was not designed by an outside agency. Everything was done in-house by Jason Thompson, our webmaster, and our Department of ITS. Not only did we end up with an incredibly effective and useful web portal, we saved tens of thousands of dollars by doing the redesign in-house.
- Can you summarize the history of Huntsville's web portal?
Our current design went live on March 1, 2009. We replaced a dated, text heavy, difficult to navigate website with one that would be visually appealing, made an incredible use of social media and, most importantly, made information about our city and departments very easy to find and accessible.
- What are the overarching objectives of Huntsville's current e-government initiatives?
One of the biggest goals of Mayor Tommy Battle’s administration is to have a government that is open and accessible. HuntsvilleAL.gov is a perfect example of reaching that goal. HuntsvilleAL.gov is easy to navigate, it’s visually appealing and it presents a wealth of information. Moreover, with social media allowing us ways to interact with our residents that we didn’t have previously, we have been very successful in having transparency at an unmatched level.
- From a marketing standpoint, what are some of the strategies that you have utilized to draw attention to the information and services provided by HuntsvilleAL.gov, both on- and off-line?
We tied the launch of HuntsvilleAL.gov in with a larger rebranding of the City of Huntsville’s visual identity. We also have had unprecedented success with our Facebook page – which now has around 15,000 followers. Jason and I have also pushed the envelope of creativity with HuntsvilleAL.gov as well – making heavy use of “splash pages” (these are pages that highlight moments of significance and temporarily replace the traditional front page) that not only help our residents find the information they are looking for easily, but draw attention to noteworthy events or achievements. Our most important marketing has been done by the website itself. HuntsvilleAL.gov has a great design that is easy to use and that keeps people coming back. We hit new traffic records on an almost monthly basis. If the site wasn’t effective, people wouldn’t use it.
- How has citizen feedback influenced the development of Huntsville's e-government services?
Citizen feedback was the only factor in HuntsvilleAL.gov’s redesign. Everything, from how the information was organized and presented to the visual asthetic of the site was based on easy of use, navigation and making the most requested information the easiest to find.
- What is the most-used feature or service on the site?
Our “Employment” page consistently gets the most traffic. After that, our eGovernment section, which allows residents to pay fines, search for documents, etc. and our Department of Recreation Services each receive significant traffic.
- In what way has harnessing social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) allowed you to connect more directly and personally with the citizens of Huntsville?
Our work with Facebook has been the most revolutionary and effective advancement in our communications effort – probably ever. Facebook has allowed us to communicated quickly and directly with tens of thousands of our residents. Our work with Facebook has been such a success that the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government highlighted it “Making the Most of Social Media: 7 Promising Practices from Successful Cities)” – a special report that examined municipalities and their incorporation of social media.
- Where do you see e-government heading in the next 2-3 years? Are there any exciting new features or services currently in the works for Huntsville's web portal?
We are constantly looking for ways to improve our communications effort. Government is often stereotyped as being “slow moving” or “stale.” That may be true in some cases, but I can assure you that Huntsville will stay on the cutting edge of technology and communication wherever possible.
- What else that you would like to tell us about HuntsvilleAL.gov?
HuntsvilleAL.gov was designed, built and is maintained completely in-house. We update HuntsvilleAL.gov frequently and work to make sure that we present information quickly and openly. I am incredibly proud of the cost savings that designing the site in-house gave us and, most importantly, I’m very proud of how useful our residents find the site. Mayor Tommy Battle and the City of Huntsville truly do appreciate your recognition of HuntsvilleAL.gov and the work that many people gave us to get it to this point.