By Megan Poinski
The Maryland General Assembly website has tons of information on legislation that is sometimes easy to find, but often difficult to uncover, because the site hasn’t been substantially redesigned since it went live 15 years ago.
The General Assembly site features information on bills, votes, legislative proceedings, committee meetings and legislators. A person can find voluminous information about budget proposals, reports and documentation.
Information about various legislators and the bills they sponsored is readily available. Documents from previous sessions are archived and users can download variations of legislation and amendments from prior years.
The audio of what goes on during sessions of the House of Delegates and Senate is available dating back to 2000, though the soundtrack does not identify speakers by name, but only by district or county. And starting with the 2011 session, people could watch or listen to committee hearings on the site from wherever they could get a good Internet connection. Even though the General Assembly adjourned sine die weeks ago, those web broadcasts of the hearings can be listened to right now.
How easy is all that to navigate?
Mike Gaudiello, the director of the General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Information Systems, said that the site right now is organized by bill number. If someone knows the bill number that he or she wants information on, information is readily available.
However, the site has few graphics, and is on a largely monochrome purple background. The menus aren’t clearly marked, and menu choices tend to be in small text. Bills are organized by numbers, making it easy for legislative staff and legislators to find, but more difficult to locate for those who may only be familiar with a bill’s topic or sponsors.
Videos or audio of committee hearings are organized only by date, not by topics discussed or hearing types. And the full-text search of legislation brings up all bill versions and amendments, making it difficult to for a user to know what he or she is looking at.
“If you understand it’s a bill-centric website, it is easy to find things,” Gaudiello said.
According to screenshots from the Internet Archive Project, the General Assembly’s site design has changed very little since its inception in 1996. The site organization has stayed the same: links on the top of a dappled purple background, which either take users to different spots in the page, or to navigational portals.
“Yes, it is an old design,” said Gaudiello. “But it accommodates a wide variety of access.” He pointed out that people will get the same experience on the site using any computer, any browser, and any type of mobile web device.
How easy is this to use?
For regular users of the General Assembly website, the way it is structured and put together makes sense.
But for someone looking at the page for the first time, it can be tricky.
At the request of MarylandReporter.com, user experience specialist Jennifer Cardello took a look at the Maryland General Assembly website. Cardello works with web usability expert Jakob Nielsen. Usability simply measures how easy a website is to use, and Cardello said that the Maryland legislative site could use some work.
“They need to think about the areas of use,” she said. “Who is using the site? What is their objective? What do they want to know?”
Cardello said that the Maryland General Assembly has taken a big step forward by adding so much information to its website. However, she said, it is not apparent from looking at the website that the information exists.
“If you have gaping holes in navigation, what you put there does not mean much,” she said. “You have information, but people do not know it’s there.”
The site also constrains people who are searching for information, she said. Many of the files, from bill information to committee votes, are PDF files, which are sometimes not easily searched for terms or information. Additionally, not every computer has the necessary software to view PDF files on the Internet.
Cardello said that governmental entities often say that site redesigns are extremely expensive, which may be holding Maryland back from making big changes. However, she said that keeping a site that is hard to use and navigate is also costly. If people cannot find what they are looking for online, she said, they will call an office to find it. And because of that, the state must employ people who can help them find the information. (The General Assembly has several people in Library and Information Services to do just that.)
National firm Forrester Research has looked into this, Cardello said. Considering all of the costs involved with employees, each call someone makes to get information about items that could be displayed on the website ends up costing $12. If the website has the information and it is easy to find, each click ends up costing about 25 cents.
A content management solution
The best solution for Maryland, Cardello said, would be a content management system that works with the information. This content management system would devise a way to store, organize, and search for the information, and would easily “push” information to users, instead of making them have to do a lot to “pull” it out of the site.
She said that it is sometimes a problem to get agencies to do this. Much of the time, she said, people who work with websites are not necessarily innovative or thoroughly knowledgeable, and rely on sales pitches for information systems.
For now, she said, adding some navigation features to the General Assembly homepage – like a clearly defined menu to get information on bills, members, policies, committees, and the General Assembly itself – would do a lot.
Gaudiello said that he has not heard too many complaints about the way the site looks or is navigated now. While a redesign is in the future, it isn’t on the front burner. The information on the site is comprehensive, he said, and the design can be seen by anyone with an internet connection.
“The principal mission of the site is to provide accurate and timely information about what is transpiring in the General Assembly, and to make it as widely accessible as possible,” he said.
What other states’ sites look like
State legislative websites run the gamut from looking ultra modern to being badly in need of an update. Pam Greenberg, an Internet fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that each state has one, and their looks and functions have evolved with the rest of the Internet. State governments are always trying to be frugal and will probably not have the most high tech and dynamic sites out there.
Jason Dunnivant, lead developer for legislation information services in Tennessee, said that until about three years ago, Tennessee’s General Assembly homepage looked a lot like Maryland’s. It had never been redesigned, and Dunnivant said there was a true need to do so.
About three years ago, Dunnivant and staff convinced the chief of staff that a redesign needed to be done. So Dunnivant said they started by polling users on the website, asking what they would like to see. Then they contracted with a design agency to work on making that a reality.
“Our traffic went up quite a bit,” Dunnivant said. “We haven’t heard anything negative.”
Tennessee’s site quickly became one of the most respected in the nation, receiving a citation last year from the Center for Digital Government for having one of the best government-to-citizen websites in the country.
Additionally, Dunnivant said, Oklahoma’s State Legislature copied Tennessee’s site design and put a near-identical module up for citizens to access legislative information.
Tennessee’s content is very similar to what Maryland has on its current site, except it is searchable several different ways. The most popular feature on the site allows people to sign up to follow a certain bill. They receive e-mails every time something happens to the bill in the legislative process.
Tennessee has also started embedding information into videos of hearings that makes them easier to search. If someone is searching for “vanity plates,” and a single bill dealing with vanity plates was discussed in the middle of a four-hour hearing, the search function will take the user right to the segment of the meeting where that bill was discussed.
Washington State revamps site
Another state that has received a lot of recent recognition for its new design is Washington. Ronda Tentarelli, the applications manager for the Washington State Legislature, said that the site’s last big redesign was about six years ago, but information is constantly being added and moved around. In 2010, it received the Online Democracy Award from the National Conference of State Legislatures and in late 2009, Congress.org named the site one of the nation’s best.
When the site was being redesigned, Tentarelli said they turned to everyone who used it for advice.
“We wanted to figure out things, like how do we present information without relying on legislative terms?” she said. “How does the general public make use of the site? They may know a little bit about what a bill is about, but that’s it. We tried to keep their goals foremost in our minds.”
While Washington does not have the newest and most modern-looking homepage, the information on it and the ways it is accessible make it stand apart. Tentarelli said they took care to design the site so that the average person could easily find what they were looking for through obvious navigation. Additionally, there is a large amount of easily searchable information ranging from bill sponsors to committee votes.
But for those who have problems using the site, Washington has a legislative information center that answers questions and teaches classes about how to best use the site.
“Whenever we do IT projects on behalf of the legislature, we think about the public dimension of the project,” Tentarelli said. “Is this the way for people to search for this?”