Analyzing Public Service: How to Tell the Right Story

Depiction of public sector versus private sector using a super hero and someone that has won a lot of awards

Old habits die hard. Before joining Digital Services Georgia (DSGa), I worked in news media and was addicted to watching Google Analytics website metrics on my phone. I’d be standing with friends at a crowded bar (pre-Covid!), my face glued to the glowing, pocket-sized screen showing real-time activity on the websites I managed. 

I obsessed over which headlines were getting clicks, how far users scrolled, and how deep into the site users wandered. I wanted to see our numbers go up, up, up. Our team celebrated when we broke single-day records for visits. And we analyzed every editorial choice in hopes of replicating that success again and again. More visitors meant more revenue from advertising or sales conversions. We set internal goals for visits, unique visitors, page views, and users’ time on site. 

Our business success was directly tied to whether our product design worked and if our content attracted eyeballs. Reacting to these numbers was how we tacked and jibed — more of what worked and less of what didn’t.

For those of us who’ve moved from managing digital properties in the private sector to a public-sector equivalent, the website analytics we once obsessed over no longer tell the right story. In state government, we’re proud when we serve a large volume of page views, yet a high or low number doesn’t reflect our talent as content managers. The driving factor likely has nothing to do with the kind of job we do; Georgians are filing for unemployment benefits, applying for food assistance, or checking COVID-19 reports. It’s useful to know what pages are popular — it helps us prioritize content and design effective information architecture — but our goal isn’t about trying to increase traffic.

Another metric that commercial website managers may chase is the amount of time users spend surfing around their sites. If you want to keep potential customers or readers on your site as long as possible in hopes of selling them something or serving up advertising, that makes sense. But who wants to actually spend more time on a government website? Unless you’re patron saint of government employees Leslie Knope, the answer is no one.

It’s true that government should behave more like the private sector in some areas, particularly when it comes to digital product innovation. We need more user research, design thinking, and iterative development. After all, the private sector sets constituent expectations. Users are accustomed to a thoughtful digital experience, and as they travel the web from commercial to government sites, they expect the same level of execution.

Metrics that matter

Our mission at DSGa is to make constituent interactions with state government frictionless, fast, easy, and meaningful. To know if we’re on the right track, we must pay attention to the metrics that matter for us. To achieve this goal, we’ve launched the Georgia Analytics Program (GAP) and also publish a real-time dashboard that grades state websites on key areas that matter most for the public sector: Quality Assurance, Accessibility, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Content managers can explore the most granular data about their website’s performance at GovHub Analytics, where it’s also possible for agencies to schedule customized automated reports to arrive via email.

Instead of being motivated by profit, all we care about is how well we serve the public. On a Sunday in March 2020, the number of website users to the Georgia Department of Public Health spiked by an astonishing 11,000%. If you’re in the private sector, you may pat yourselves on the back for getting eyeballs on your content, but we know the reason for the surge wasn’t anything to celebrate. In general, when traffic spikes on government websites, it’s because people are in crisis and need credible, authoritative information or are desperate for help. These are the moments we design for, because we know our constituents are counting on us.

Right content, right vocabulary

Our user’s journey starts before they ever reach a .gov domain. Most likely, it begins with a search query on Google or another search engine. As a government website, the SEO game is stacked heavily in our favor. So, if you’re getting outranked for things that are your purview — especially where you’re the originating source of the information — then you need to fix that. Watch to make sure you’re using the same vocabulary as your users. For example, users seeking SNAP benefits will usually search for “food stamps,” or those seeking a driver’s license may type in “DMV.” Even though those aren’t official terms in Georgia government, we still need to get constituents on the right path. Moreover, there are commercial entities that may try to capture those terms and mimic the look of a government website, creating confusion for users.

How you doin’?

If site traffic isn’t a good measure of successful content, then how do we know if we’re doing a good job? One way is to flat out ask your users. Our GovHub partners can submit a support request and have a feedback form added to several page types. It asks users a simple yes or no question: “Did you find what you were looking for on this page?”

GovHub feedback form

Because we are in public service, all we care about is whether our constituents found the information or accessed the service they were looking for. Site traffic ebbs and flows. It’s important to watch these patterns and understand why it’s happening, but achieving more page views is not the metric that matters to us. What matters to us is whether our users were able to complete their task quickly, on the first try. What matters to us is that they easily find the information they’re looking for, and they trust it to be accurate. Our users expect it, and the people of Georgia deserve nothing less.