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More complexity demands greater simplicity

It wasn't that long ago that the City of Calgary had a website like most other government websites: To know it, I'm told, was to harbour a lingering dislike for it. Citizens polled by the city said they didn't care for it. Even senior bureaucrats couldn't find what they were looking for on the thing.

So Calgary got rid of it.

In its place: A pretty picture of the city and a white search box. That's it. Instead of presenting a rats' nest of links and pictures, the norm for government websites around the world, Calgary's site just sits there, an empty field, open and inviting. It simply cues the user to type whatever it is they're looking for into a search box, and be done with it. No need for links, site maps, city departments, nothing – just a search box.

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The change is as refreshing as it is jarring: In the age of Google, most government sites still work like Yahoo did a decade ago. Does Calgary's model point to the future? I hope so.

Just like local government itself, the importance of local government websites is underestimated. (Though you know what they say about minor zoning variances: Those who like them, like them a lot.) The closer to ground level a government gets, the more it becomes involved with service delivery. This is why municipal governments are investing heavily in 311 services, which provides a single phone number that citizens can call to access any city service.

But 311 suffers from the same drawback as any customer-service operation that employs puny humans to answer the phone: It doesn't scale well. More callers mean more operators or longer wait times. Enter the municipal website.

For years, Calgary's website followed the same logical system that most government websites default to: It broke itself down by department, assuming that visitors would suss out the appropriate city division to handle their query.

"To get the most out of it, you had to know how the city is structured," says David Watson, the city's general manager of planning, who was tasked with leading the charge to replace it. And inevitably, of the 93 per cent of Calgarians who the city says are online, precious few gave a fig about the city's org-chart.

So Calgary turned the concept inside out, all but discarded the hierarchy, and put the search engine front and centre.

This is easier to pull off in theory than in practice: Plenty of sites have a search box, but a search box will only be effective if it works to the expectations that Google and Microsoft have established, and delivers the right page first virtually every time. Calgary, indeed, bought its search engine from Google – essentially, a Google-in-a-box that searches only its own site.

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The city then coupled the search engine to its Microsoft-based document-management system, to give citizens access to city files, as well as to its existing GIS (geographic and information system) software. Interactive maps light up with everything from bike maps to property information. All of this comes up through the search engine.

Calgary isn't the first jurisdiction to launch a search-first Web presence – both the Utah and Texas state websites take similar approaches – but it's a leader in the municipal realm, and is certainly the first of the big Canadian cities to break the mould.

Government websites are a perfect fit for this kind of concept: They sit atop vast repositories of data, but the more data there is, the more intricate the hierarchy to find it needs to be. Site designers struggle mightily to put the most frequently visited links out front, but oftentimes this only adds to the clutter.

The result is a pageant of small-print links, as the government's services and departments parade themselves, festooned with stock photography of happy citizens and civic landmarks. It's a losing battle.

If anything, it's reminiscent of the long-gone days when Yahoo tried to break down the Web by categories, leading users along winding series of tree branches. It wasn't long before the Web outgrew this approach, and the search engine model, epitomized by Google's stark simplicity, came to dominate.

Government websites have resisted this shift and persisted with their cluttered, eye-boggling designs, and for no good reason.

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Even Calgary's site retains old-style links, hidden near the edges of the page, as well as a vestigial site map. "You can still use our site-structure list to move through our hierarchy to try and locate the page you might be looking for," read that page's instructions, with an almost impish intimation that it might be a fool's errand.

The solution that Calgary adopted may be most remarkable as an act of institutional humility. Governments are big, complicated machines, and their instinct will always be to make a show of all the things they do. But Calgary's site advertises nothing except its interest in what the citizen is looking for. Usefulness is the best municipal service of all.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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