Reflections on websites for state government

On Friday, I wasn’t able to find my way through the new version of the website for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. I was trying to write a story about the commission’s decision to cube preference points and was trying to locate a map for the Elk Mountain unit of the bighorn sheep season.

Eventually I gave up and emailed Tony Venhuizen, the governor’s chief of staff. I did this because the commission was still in its meeting, where I had been Thursday afternoon and the first hour of the morning Friday; I knew various top personnel from the department were still there and perhaps wouldn’t be able to respond.

The redesigned website went live this week. Venhuizen worked his normal magic as chief of staff and in a relatively short time Emily Kiel emailed the link to me for the meeting book.

The department had issued a news release about the new design. I noticed the news release but didn’t open it the email. So I was at fault. Unfortunately that fact didn’t hit me until I began my second cup of coffee this morning.

I read the news release this morning. My summary: It shows the public the door and encourages readers to explore. GFP Secretary Kelly Hepler, communications director Emily Kiel and Calley Worth, a digital content specialist quoted in the news release, deserve a compliment. Like so many state government agencies, GFP is very complex.

But when I look at the front page of the new website, I’m still lost. I have no idea whether people would use what I’m about to suggest (and maybe it’s there but I don’t know where). Would there be a benefit if there was a front page on the website that told people how to find the top one dozen or two dozen topics?

I don’t know.

There’s a wide variety of approaches on state government’s websites. I’m impressed they all have websites. Some work better, for me, than others. Some leave me lost. I don’t know whether the same front-page ‘how to get there’ approach suggested here for GFP could help people navigate the other sites.

And I don’t know whether the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications could get to the work. BIT already strains to get through the backlog of demands from those dozens of state agencies. (One reason is a shortage of employees.)

I ran into a problem using the Legislative Research Council website Wednesday. That afternoon I couldn’t find the budget documents for the offices that presented to the legislators on the Joint Committee on Appropriations that morning. There was a tab but there wasn’t any content.

I was able to find similar documents from 2017. Frustrated, I went through the Secretary of State office to get its presentation. LRC responded later that afternoon and provided the same presentation. I thanked both.

That situation too was my fault. I had assumed the LRC would have the information already posted when I left the appropriations room that morning. My assumption was wrong. LRC recently split its website away from the executive branch, taking it independent and outside BIT’s orbit. I understand the desire for independence. I’ve also watched LRC try to build its digital-content staff.

The same talent shortage affects LRC as BIT. That talent shortage extends throughout state government for many jobs.

So I plan to explore the GFP site in the days ahead. Such is life in the digital age. And I also hope the governor, whether it be Dennis Daugaard this year or his successor next year, can urge departments to make their many websites somewhat consistent and more user-friendly. Likewise for the Legislature’s branch. If taxpayers can’t navigate them, what good are they?