In the old pre-computer days, anyone inquiring about local government services had to search for numbers in the phone book or visit city and county buildings to read bulletin boards for information such as meeting agendas and minutes.
Websites changed all that, although many of them have been difficult to navigate, much like trying to drive down a highway full of stop signs.
Washington County recognized that problem and on Wednesday unveiled an updated website designed to put users in touch with information topically, instead of by county department.
"They will notice a pretty distinct transition when they come in and it looks like this -- not something they've been experiencing for nine years," said Larry Timmerman, a senior planner who showed the new site to county commissioners before it was made public.
The site has a revamped home page with "flyout menus" that channel users to all available content. The 2,500 pages of content on the old site were reorganized into 500 pages on the new site, eliminating redundancies and unexpected dead-ends. The new site has buttons to connect to social media, a "Report a Concern" link, a "Notify Me" link for anyone wanting to receive updates on road construction and other county projects, and FAQs buttons.
In the event of any immediate urgent news, the site will have a red "alert" button at the top.
Autumn Lehrke, the youngest member of the county board, said she liked the improved, more powerful technology. "For a user that's not familiar with county services, this is awesome -- way easier to find what you're looking for," she said.
The old site was difficult to navigate, had limited functionality and did not perform as a communication tool as would be expected of a county website, said county spokeswoman Yvonne Klinnert, who participated in planning the new site.
"When we did a communication audit of the county more than a year ago, front-line workers told us that they had a very difficult time assisting residents to navigate to information on the site," she said.
The website has been crucial to county business, though, fielding nearly 3.9 million individual page views in the study period from March 2011 to March 2012. Many of those views came from residents seeking information, such as where to go for child support applications, or jail hours, or how to contact their elected commissioners.
Because of those information-seeking inquiries, the new site has a "How Do I?" menu that Timmerman described as "a one-stop shop where you can find answers to your questions." For the first time, the interactive nature of the site allows county workers to take comments and questions from users and in turn respond more quickly, he said.
The site also has links to websites of cities and townships throughout Washington County.
Because the county has about 1,500 full- and part-time employees, the new website won't list them all by name and contact information because the county lacks resources to keep the list current, said County Administrator Molly O'Rourke.
However, the site will offer contact information for departments that field the most inquiries, she said, and that will include all the county's elected officials: the five commissioners, Sheriff Bill Hutton and County Attorney Pete Orput.
The county board had approved a $153,000 contract with web developer CivicPlus to create the new and improved site. In addition, dozens of county employees were involved in planning it over the past six months, Timmerman said.
The website address remains the same as it has been since 2003: www.co.washington.mn.us.
Kevin Giles 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles