Government Is Prioritizing Digital Service Improvements, And Better Website Tracking Can Help

State and federal government agencies, departments, and teams want to provide better constituent service. And they’re trying. In fact, the recent Federal Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Action Plan emphasizes the role of customer service in providing a better overall experience in government interactions: the plan aims to provide “government services that area generally comparable in quality to that of leading private-sector organizations.” That’s quite a lofty goal, especially considering the tech talent gap in public service.

Due to disparities in current technology, difficulty in recruiting, inertia, and other factors, inventing a modern customer experience in government entities is a big lift.

It’s Hard to Know What to Change If You Don’t Know Where You Are

Not only are there gaps in qualified talent, agencies often don’t know what they don’t know. For example, a state tourism agency I consulted recently lacked visibility into what the behavior of users on their website really looked like. This made it difficult to know what content to prioritize, what users really wanted to achieve, and if their user experience was working. This is important because if you don’t know where you are today, it’s hard to know how to get to a better future state.

The experience of the tourism agency matches with current Gartner research, which found that 96% of government organizations are still at either the initial or developing phases in creating key metrics and data. For agencies who are starting from zero or in those early phases today, the organization’s website is an ideal place to start gathering (and using!) better data.

Improved Website Tracking Is A Government Customer Experience Launching Pad

Why is the website a great place to kick a digital transformation effort into higher gear? There are three key reasons:

  • Website properties are the “face of the organization”
  • They contain current, high-volume data from real users (customers)
  • Easier to measure the effect of changes and rapidly react

Government Agency Website Visit Growth is Enormous

Website visits to government properties are exploding. They have become the place that your customers (citizens and other entities) look first for information and services.

Source: analytics.usa.gov

A quick data sample pulled from analytics.usa.gov shows that aggregate federal website visits have increased 259% from 2015-2020. Many state government websites have experienced similar growth.
And government website visitors have become much more sophisticated. Their expectation is that they will be able to conduct their business with your agency quickly, easily, and with minimal extra contacts or steps involved.

Websites Can Provide Deep Customer Interaction Data

Website data, if collected with enough depth in tracking elements, yields considerable detail on where the customer experience is succeeding or failing. By look at where visitors come into the agency website, what areas they navigate into and pages they experience, the elements they interact with during their visit, and where the visit ends, the customer journey can be examined.

Best of all, government websites typically offer a trove of high-volume, historical and near real-time customer data.

Consider some basic user scenarios for a state department of taxation:

  1. The visitor comes into the website on the agency home page, locates the link to find their tax refund, and navigates to a page with a refund status lookup application. They are able to complete the form within the application and find their refund information. At that point, their website visit ends.
  2. A visitor comes into the website on a “common tax forms” page, downloads a few PDF tax form files. After this, they use the website’s search function, navigate to three more tax information pages, and finally an agency contact page. They finish their website visit on the contact page, after clicking a link to call the agency directly.
  3. Another visitor comes into the website on an overview page for tax payments. They navigate to the section for business taxes, and then to an online application for corporate estimated tax payments. They enter some information within the application’s form, but are unable to complete their filing during this visit. The visitor then saves the application state as a draft, and leaves the site to return later.

With some additions to basic website analytics, all the above scenarios are measurable to determine whether the visit ended in a positive or negative outcome and how arduous the touch points along the way were for the customer.

Detailed data gathered from large quantities of visits can help determine whether screen real estate is being used effectively, navigation is obvious and clear, and online applications are serving their intended purpose, among other things.

Rapidly Evolve And Improve the Government Customer Experience

One of the best things about the agency website being a primary customer touch point is that updates can be rolled out and measured for improvement, and, where necessary, modified further depending on what the interaction data says.

This kind of rapid evolution provides enormous opportunity for gains in the customer experience and even citizens’ positive perception of government services.

Setting Up Website Tracking

Standard Website Tracking Tags

Most government websites implement their website analytics through Google Analytics, with or without Google Tag Manager, inserting a small snippet of tracking code into their pages. I have seen this done by the department or agency’s team, and in some cases by technology staff or contractors. Either way, the standard Google Analytics tracking tag provides some essential data points for evaluating website activity, including:

  • Quantities of website visits and the number of distinct users making those visits
  • Most and least viewed website pages
  • Geographic locations of visitors (country, state, metro region, city)
  • Average time spent on the website
  • What percentage of users visited from their smartphone versus a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet

While the above items are useful, even necessary, they do not provide a full picture of user interactions across the website. For that, we need to go deeper.

Going Above And Beyond With Website Tracking

To gain thorough understanding of the customer website journey, some additional tracking elements must be added, typically through Google Tag Manager. The primary reason is that the standard tracking tags provide good data, but it is incomplete and not matched to the unique environment and needs of each agency’s website. Without these additions, it is more difficult to optimize the website for customer experience improvements.

Some types of tracking elements that might be added to a government website to create a clearer picture of the user journey, and why they are necessary:

  • Tracking how far visitors scroll down each page: to determine what content on a page was seen by users during their visit.
  • Time spent on a page, measured in a custom threshold: to provide for a more accurate gauge of whether users spent a sufficient amount of time viewing a page to read the content presented.
  • Use of navigation menus and options, especially by mobile and desktop website visits: to learn whether navigation menus are clear and easy to understand, if they are serving the needs of most users, and whether they are working well on multiple kinds of devices.
  • Interactions with links, menus, and other items on key pages: especially on the Home page or other highly important pages, measuring clicks and usage of page elements in the context of the page helps determine whether valuable screen real estate is being used wisely.
  • Downloads of PDF, Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other documents, button or call to action clicks: provides data points on the usefulness of information and content shown to website visitors, and whether visitors are finding what they need.
  • Use of applications such as calculators, interactive forms, wizards, and other items: aids with optimization of these applications, and evaluates their usability.
  • Contact actions such as form completions, clicks to email the agency or employees directly, or clicks to call phone numbers: helps determine the types of contact methods preferred by users, and is a key outcome in the user journey.

The above are examples of the types of user tracking elements that can be used; there are many more possibilities and opportunities unique to each website.

Gathering Clean, Privacy Protected Data

Protecting user privacy is critical especially for government websites. Great care must be taken when deploying user tracking to avoid data collection where any personally identifiable information (PII) might be unintentionally collected. Phone numbers, names, email addresses, physical addresses, and other such data points needed to be collected securely, obscured before reporting, or omitted.

In addition, collected data needs to be clean and understandable to be usable for reporting purposes. Interactions with website items and contact actions need to be properly formatted and in some places “translated” into plain language when reported, so they can be understood months or years after the fact.

For example, downloads of files could be neatly organized by the type of file (PDF, Word, Excel, etc) and then the name of the file underneath that.

Deployment Time Considerations for Website Tracking Projects

How long does a typical website tracking implementation project take from start to finish? The honest answer here is “it depends,” but that’s not very useful. From my experience with these projects, I recommend dividing the rollout into phases, from those that can be completed relatively quickly to those that will take more time. Some ideas for deployment phases could include:

  1. Phase I: enhanced tracking deployment for “core” website pages, including the home page.
  2. Phase II: additional tracking elements for items such as website contact forms and elements that are more interactive.
  3. Phase III (and beyond): tracking within applications, subdomains, or other instances where additional permissions are needed, security concerns exist, or more teams are involved.

Using Website Data for Optimization Purposes

Once your website is fully outfitted with user tracking across the board, how do you use your new data for optimization?

The best way to go about a website effort, in my opinion, is to let data collection work for at least one calendar quarter before making any decisions. That way, the outside effects such as seasonality should be lessened, and the aggregate data will be large enough to be a good-sized sample of user behavior. Once the quarter ends, perform an initial comprehensive audit. This audit should include, at the very least:

  • Site wide averages for key metrics
  • Page-specific data for the Home page and other pages with high importance
  • Grouped measurement, by percentage of total users, for visit outcomes such as completion of forms, downloads of files, successful use of website applications, navigation interaction, and so on.

This initial audit should serve as a baseline for your future optimization work. For example, if the interaction on a key block of the Home page is 3% in the baseline, then future changes can be measured against that baseline, better or worse.

Always give your changes enough time to “phase in” before evaluating. Resist the urge to assess too soon.

Need Help With Your Government Website Tracking Project?

I’m always glad to consult local, state, and federal government agencies and teams on their website tracking. Contact me to set up a discussion or ask a question.

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