“The website needs a fairly significant refresh.” – Anna Adams-Sarthou, communications consultant, December 2019.
That was an understatement.
When Mt. Lebanon’s website (mtlebanon.org) was first launched, in the late 1990s, we were one of few communities to have a site. Unlike other towns at the time, we didn’t create a static site; we were one of the first communities to update it regularly, in the name of public transparency. We posted agendas, meeting notices and even the weather forecast.
Not long after, Mt. Lebanon’s IT department expanded other ways people could receive information digitally, especially on a cell phone.
In 2009, we started providing LeboALERTs, a first-of-its-kind text, email (and at the time, phone call) service to send immediate bulletins to residents. In 2012, the IT department merged LeboALERT into myLebo, a new online portal that allowed people to pay fees, request overnight parking, log missed garbage/recycling pickups or put in service requests for things like trimming municipal street trees or replacing a streetlight bulb.
As time went on, the website became a great resource to learn the history of particular issues. Because it didn’t cost anything but staff time, we posted lots of things: research documents, slide decks, videos. The project’s vendor, CivicPlus, made government websites all over the country, so we used their expertise to help us design updates every five years to refresh the look, feel and operation of the site.
But through the decades, all those documents, slide decks and links that had become dated started clogging up the searches. Users had a hard time finding things on the site because they don’t think like we do. We are government employees thinking like government employees. We know that public works takes care of our parks, not our recreation department. But residents don’t know that—and they shouldn’t need to.
The municipality set aside $25,000 in 2019 for a website redesign. But at the time, the Commission engaged a consultant to look at all the ways we reach our constituents. Anna Adams-Sarthou from A.S. Comms provided extensive comments for how the site should be handled. Her suggestions were combined with those of the Mt. Lebanon Commissioners and the thoughts of all the municipal departments to determine the goals for the new website.
Among those goals:
- Bring the police department and fire department websites into the municipal site, giving them their own identity, but making them an integral part of the branding and operation of the website.
- The public information office should determine the content to be placed on the site and should be able to post themselves, without having to send all changes to IT.
- The website should grow, even from the minute it has launched, to be able to adapt to changes and needs of its users.
- The myLebo portal for online service requests should be prominently placed.
- The user experience should be as seamless as possible with any third-party software we use, such as our recreation management software.
- People should be able to find things in as few clicks as possible.
- Internal and external searches should be fruitful and as accurate as possible.
And then … 2020 happened. The pandemic forced both our information technology office and our public information office to divert a majority of their time to issues related to the lockdowns. IT ensured municipal staff could work from home. PIO spent time pushing out safety-related messaging. Both still had their regular workload to complete from the office, with many members of their staffs working from home. The website redo took a necessary recess.
At a goal-setting retreat in 2021, Commissioners unanimously named the new website as a top priority for the year. Commissioners Craig Grella and Andrew Flynn were named as “Commission Champions” to help guide the project, along with staff leads, Information Technology Manager Nick Schalles and Public Information Officer (and writer of this article) Laura Pace Lilley. The project team also included IT Coordinator Sandy Marek, Assistant Public Information Officer Katie Wagner (until she left our employ and Stephanie Hacke took over) and we all sought guidance from Assistant Manager/Planner Ian McMeans.
In the summer of 2021, the project team convened a focus group of diverse website users to tell us what they wanted to see in a new site. We used that input, as well as the Commission and staff goals to put out a request for proposals for a consultant to help us create the website itself. We wanted to find a creative contractor who could give us a window into best practices for usability and accessibility, while also keeping in mind the fact that we are a government, and we have to do governmenty things. We had many demands for this project and were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find a partner to address them all. What was also becoming clear was that the original $25,000 budget wasn’t going to touch what we needed to do with this project, especially given that bringing over the police and fire websites weren’t in the original plans.
We indeed found a partner. After thoroughly reviewing the excellent proposals we received and after detailed interviews, the project team selected Krakoff Communications, Inc. Krakoff’s project portfolio included Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, schools, municipalities and small startups. They did not flinch when we gave them our long list of requirements for our completely custom website: Accessibility for all! Calendars! Mapping compatibility! WordPress platform! Third-party software integration! Email address protection! Full-text search including PDFs! Short URLs! A “how-to” feature! Bookmark redirection!
While Upper St. Clair resident Jeff Krakoff was the lead on the original conversations, the meat of the work would be done by creative director Scott Bowlin, a Mt. Lebanon volunteer firefighter who lives on Ashland Avenue, and Tom Young, the director of technology for Krakoff’s contractor, Lava New Media.
Pricing for the original scope came in at $73,510 but adding the police and fire sites brought the final quote to $91,510. Commissioners approved a contract in December 2021 and we got to work in January 2022.
Development was slow but deliberate. We analyzed tons of data about what people were accessing on the website. We set up the new architecture to reflect where we thought residents would go to find information—which was not necessarily where it was. For example, our wood chips program—gardeners can pick up wood chips at the golf course from April through October—was listed under recreation programs because the mulch is available at the golf course. We had block parties listed under public works because they approve the applications and deliver the barricades. But who knows that other than government employees? The problem was, until the new site was developed and laid out, we couldn’t move much of the information to it from the existing site. And because of that, our contractor couldn’t see what we had in mind by looking at the old site. So we both forged forward, having faith in each other’s abilities to figure things out.
Once the architecture was set, we worked on design. Bowlin showed the project team lots of ideas and we picked what we thought best showed off our town while being sensitive to all sorts of potential barriers, from colorblindess to people who don’t use a mouse.
In late December, when many people were snug in their Christmas jammies, we began migrating the content, while still adding important things to the old website, because it needed to stay online until the switch. From Christmas until the first week of May, several of us moved over, edited, updated and changed hundreds of pages of content. The recreation staff re-created hundreds of program descriptions—again, while leaving current programs on the old website so people could continue to sign up. PIO graphic designers Judy Macoskey and Chris Leeper edited and sized hundreds of photos. At the same time, we realized we needed some help and asked Krakoff to migrate the fire department’s content, since they were the ones who originally created it, for an additional $2,850.
Krakoff continued testing the website to be sure everything worked, and on May 9, we released the beta version to the Commission, senior staff and our 2021 focus group participants. We adjusted for their comments and launched it the day after Memorial Day.
Almost immediately, we began work on bringing the police department material over, and after a photo shoot and the importing of the department’s lengthy policy manual, we flipped the switch on that addition.
In July, we added a new way to access the Mt. Lebanon Home Rule Charter and complete code. On the old site, the pages were in PDF form, hard to search and impossible to link to. With the addition of our new service, you can now find the code online.
And we’re still not done. We have lots of plans for upgrades to myLebo to customize your online experience. It’s not perfect. But “fairly significant” covers it.