A new website the city of Philadelphia that’s been under construction since 2014 finally went live Tuesday, with the goal of being designed to better connect residents with their city government. The new site offers a slicker user experience than the previous version, but the city still has work to do in delivering services digitally.
“Many government websites, including the previous version of ours, organize their services by which department offered them,” Tim Wisniewski, the director of the city’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation, said in an interview with StateScoop. “We organize it the way we think of government. So the impetus for this redesign is to reorient the site around the way that a typical user might think of government.”
In 2014, city officials saw a need to reorganize the city’s busy website, which categorized city services by department, not by need or topic. If a resident wanted assistance with a health crisis, for example, they might be aware of the service they need — Narcan for a narcotics overdose, a hotline for child protective services, or a homeless shelter — but the different offices and departments that handle all of those physical and mental ailments may vary, obfuscating the process of getting help quickly.
Now, about 300 city services are organized by topic instead of by department or office. City residents aren’t navigating through the bureaucracy of government anymore, said Sara Hall, ODDT’s product manager, but rather finding the government’s services through a common-sense, categorical drop-down menu. Any health-related information that might have previously been found under separate agency pages, like drug-overdose or lead-exposure resources, are now located under a “Mental and Physical Health” tab.
An early version of the new site actually went live in 2014, six weeks after the city started working on it, accessible through an optional re-direct on the old website. Wisniewski’s office has gradually added features and collected user feedback; he said the Tuesday launch was more of a culmination of small releases than a grand opening.
While the city says it’s made improvements in the ability to withstand website traffic spikes and in mobile access, it has a substantial amount of work to do before it can begin offering true digital services. Obtaining a filming permit , for example, still requires an applicant to fill out a paper form by hand and send it in the mail at least 10 days ahead of time.
Hall said the city hasn’t been able transition those services online yet, but it might look to the portal shared by Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County, Indiana , as an example of turning a municipal website into a “digital city hall.” Indianapolis began offering digital services in 2017 with the goal of eventually offering the same services to citizens visiting their government’s website as those present at the brick-and-mortar city hall, and can now deliver more than 50 services online. Other cities, like Orlando, Florida , are using websites to kick off a change in how they deliver services as well.
“We haven’t been able to [deliver services digitally], and this is what we’re looking to do in the future — change the way those services are delivered to a digital experience,” Hall said.
Philadelphia is now taking the first steps towards that transformation.
“We know that providing a more effective digital platform will help the city better deliver services to residents,” Wisniewski said. “This work is part of the administration’s overarching vision to make the city work better for those it serves.”