The City of Des Moines wanted to provide residents with the information they needed, and to make that information fast and easy to find. But the city found its website to be a challenge. As with so many other websites, it was difficult to get expired content down and new content up in a way that was always timely. To address that concern, the city built a new website using Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007—and saved 94 percent on anticipated consultants’ fees. IT staff has set up the new site to remove expired content automatically and has cut the time to publish updated content by 99 percent, from days to minutes. Web analytics show that visitors now get to the information they want faster and more directly—exactly what the city set out to accomplish.
Not so long ago, a resident of Des Moines, Iowa, could go to the city’s website, find information on the local tax abatement program, and download a form to prepare an application—which was a shame when the tax abatement program had already closed for the year.
Of course, the City of Des Moines was far from alone in discovering that what gets onto a website is sometimes difficult to update or remove. Organizations of all types—both in the public and private sectors—share that predicament, largely for similar reasons. In the case of Des Moines, there was no easy way for administrators to track and manage site content, and to delete that content when it was outdated. It meant that a growing number of pages with increasing irrelevance would remain on the site, driving up maintenance and storage costs—and the frustration of site visitors.
Getting content and updates onto the Des Moines site—in a scenario familiar to web managers everywhere—was equally frustrating for all involved. As the city’s Enterprise Applications Manager, Debora A. Hobbs, tells it: “Because of the complexity involved in implementing site additions or updates, content owners rarely could make changes on their own—they would have to request the changes from our IT department.”
IT personnel weren’t always able to implement changes immediately, and the changes took time away from other work that needed to be done. There was usually some interaction with the content owner to get the details needed to implement the request.
“We’d copy and paste an existing page as a template for the new page,” adds Hobbs. “We’d make the changes to our test site, and ask the content owners to approve them before we implemented them on the production site. If a request required changes to navigation, we’d have to manually update the navigation of every relevant page.”
||We were aware not too many municipalities had adopted SharePoint technology for their public websites. But we felt confident it was the right technology for us. We were right.
||Debora A. Hobbs
Enterprise Applications Manager, City of Des Moines
Hobbs and her colleagues didn’t mind working hard—but they shared the frustration of both city administrators and residents that this process, which could take several hours or days, kept the site from being a timely source of information—especially in a public emergency, when residents would naturally turn to the city’s website for information and instructions. It was also difficult to integrate the website with content from the city’s intranet, with the result that little integration occurred—again limiting the website’s usefulness to residents.
Consistency on the website—in both content and style—was another of the city’s concerns. The site sometimes contained multiple pages on the same event or program—but with inconsistent information from page to page. The manual, cut-and-paste nature of page creation also meant that the graphics, type sizes and colors, and layouts of pages could vary unintentionally. Navigation could vary too, with links appearing on some pages but, inexplicably, not on others.
Difficulties in navigation were compounded by the rudimentary search capability on the site, which also made information difficult to find. “Search was unable to promote or demote results based on relevance by type of content,” says Matthew L. Wakeman, Systems Analyst and Programmer at City of Des Moines. “It included a lot of ‘special characters’ coded into the pages that weren’t especially helpful to our visitors.”
The city added web developers to its staff to modify the outsourced website design so that navigational changes only needed to be made in one place. But the broader problems remained.Solution
By 2009, city administrators were ready to address these concerns. But how? The municipal budget, always stretched tight, was especially thin during the tough times of the economic recession. Scant funds were available to hire an outside design and development company to build a new website. At the same time, internal IT staff didn’t have the time to learn a new technology for the web.
A Familiar Technology, an Unfamiliar Context
But perhaps IT staff wouldn’t have to learn a new technology after all. Hobbs and her colleagues were well-acquainted with Microsoft technologies—in particular, with Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003, Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5, and the Microsoft Visual C# development tool. These technologies already powered its intranet. The city considered adopting the then-current version of SharePoint technology—Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007—and using it as the foundation for the public-facing website.
“We were aware not too many municipalities had adopted SharePoint technology for their public websites,” says Hobbs. “But we felt confident it was the right technology for us. We were right. We didn’t need to look for another solution.”
Hobbs and her colleagues were also confident that they could build an Office SharePoint Server–based website cost effectively. The city had an Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft (including both the necessary software licenses and Software Assurance). The city was able to spread the cost of the software over three years and to upgrade to newer versions of SharePoint technology over that period, as they might become available.
More Configuration Than Coding
The development team began its work in November 2009. The developers engaged a consultant for short-term knowledge transfer on the use of SharePoint master pages to create a consistent site design. Later, the consultant helped to install and configure the solution.
Most of the functionality that the developers adopted—Wakeman estimates as much as 90 percent—was available out-of-the-box from Office SharePoint Server and required only configuration, rather than new coding. Examples include SharePoint lists and content types, master pages and templates, workflow, search, autopublishing, and scheduled start and end dates for content publishing.
|Figure 1: The new City of Des Moines website streamlines navigation by |
placing links to the most-desired information directly on the home page.
Developers used out-of-the-box Web Parts for a comprehensive search capability that includes content drawn from the city’s intranet and other city websites, such as the library, airport, and economic development sites. To enable content owners to easily display information from lists maintained within SharePoint repositories, the developers used Web Parts and controls that they obtained through the broad online community of SharePoint developers, and that they created using SharePoint development tools.
Success with the public SharePoint site led the developers to expand the city’s existing intranet with Office SharePoint Server 2007. The expanded intranet includes workflows and document templates for city council agenda development. Staff can also publish those agendas to the Internet site, where they are available to the public.
Go-Live in Six Months
The public website was completed and went live in May 2010, after six months of development. Visitors now navigate through a new site taxonomy that is organized by how they want to search for information, rather than by which city agency is responsible for that information. The use of SharePoint Web Parts contributed to the city’s ability to put an estimated 75 percent of the information that visitors want most—or, at least, direct links to that information—on the home page, minimizing the need for navigation through the site. The friendlier, more effective SharePoint search capability further streamlines site use by visitors. (See Figure 1.)
Hobbs and her colleagues are already considering taking advantage of their Software Assurance licensing agreement to update the site to Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010. They envision using the newest SharePoint technology to add easier and more effective site management, the Microsoft Fluent user interface already familiar to IT staff from their use of Microsoft Office 2007, and a content-tagging feature that content owners can review to gain feedback from visitors.Benefits
The City of Des Moines built its first Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007–based website, with minimal consulting involvement, and now finds the site easy to maintain and update. Visitors may be the biggest beneficiaries, however. Web analytics show they’re getting to the information they want more quickly, and finding that information more useful than before.
Site Relevancy Boosted
“The City of Des Moines website is now a far more effective communications tool between the city and its residents,” says Hobbs. Outdated content is removed in a timely manner, so that the information available to site visitors is more relevant than before. Hobbs and Wakeman credit much of this change to their use of SharePoint technologies.
The process of reviewing existing content and migrating it to the new site resulted in a massive deletion of outdated information, which reduced the site’s size by 95 percent. The city’s use of scheduled start and stop dates for published content is keeping the website lean by removing expired content automatically. Visitors benefit by not having to navigate through irrelevant content, while the city benefits by not having to host and maintain that content.
Time to Update Content Cut by 99 Percent
Equally important to the usefulness of the site, new and updated content is getting posted far faster than before. With tools for content creation and updating available through Office SharePoint Server, content owners can get up-to-date content onto the website themselves, without having to go through the IT department. In many cases, they can update content—such as the dates for upcoming events—without even having to modify the web pages that display that information. They only need to update the underlying lists from which the website pulls its information.
The city also expedites updates through the use of out-of-the-box SharePoint workflow. With the workflow, the city can speed the process of content review and approval, and automate the process of getting content—such as city council agendas—onto the site. By using master pages and other SharePoint technologies for consistent design, the city can prepare updated pages quickly, without the manual design processes formerly required.
||Site updates that used to take several hours to a couple of days to get to, can now be completed by content owners in a couple of minutes—in most cases, five minutes, tops.
||Debora A. Hobbs
Enterprise Applications Manager, City of Des Moines
“Site updates that used to take several hours to a couple of days to get to, can now be completed by content owners in a couple of minutes—in most cases, five minutes, tops,” says Hobbs. “That’s a time savings of 99 percent. Our content owners spend less time on updates and the quality of updates is better. Our IT staff now can focus on projects that add more value to the city. And our site visitors get the information they want—where and when they expect to get it.”
Shortly after the site went live, the city experienced a huge benefit from quick updates. In the summer of 2010, when floods hit the Des Moines area, content owners used the SharePoint technology to post emergency updates remotely, without having to be in the office or on the network. “Previously, IT would have had to have been in the office 24 x 7 to make these updates happen at all, let alone happen as fast,” says Wakeman.
Consultants’ Cost Cut by 94 Percent
Hobbs and Mike Matthes, Chief Information Officer for the city, wanted fast, cost-effective development that would bring the new website online without serious impact on the IT budget. That’s what they got by using Microsoft technology—even though it was a technology with which they were initially less familiar.
The heavy reliance on out-of-the-box technologies drastically reduced the need for new coding. The intuitive nature of Office SharePoint Server–based development played a role, too. Hobbs estimates that a website construction project can easily require U.S.$100,000 to $1 million for consulting fees, depending on the website size, complexity, and amount of work taken on by the consultant. In this case, Des Moines spent only $18,000 on short-term knowledge transfer, with all of the development work undertaken by in-house staff. Only 4 weeks of consulting time and a one-day Microsoft Architecture Design Session was needed, a 90 percent reduction in time and cost over an initially anticipated 40 weeks.
“We built the site ourselves with almost no outside involvement, despite it being our first Office SharePoint Server 2007 project,” says Hobbs. “That says a lot about how easy it is to learn and use SharePoint technologies. It also says a lot about the city’s outstanding development team.” In addition to Wakeman, that team includes Jasmin Zulic, Venkata Yarlagadda, and Josh Culp.
Duration of Page Views Increased by 500 Percent
Web analytics show that visitors find the new website more useful than before. On the former site, visitors viewed an average of 5 pages per visit, at an average of less than 30 seconds per page. On the new site, average page views per visit have gone down to 3.5 per visit, while the time spent on each page has increased to 2.5 minutes.
“Visitors have immediately confirmed the value of the new site,” says Hobbs. “Page views per visit are down, and viewing times per page are up, because the new design, navigation, and search capabilities enable visitors to find what they’re looking for more quickly and easily—visitors are getting to the right content in fewer clicks. They don’t have to hop around from page to page. We wanted a website that would be a comprehensive communications channel between the city and its residents. That’s what we have.”
The Web Marketing Association agrees. In 2010, the association presented the City of Des Moines with its WebAward for outstanding achievement in web development.Microsoft Office System
The Microsoft Office system is the business world’s chosen environment for information work, providing the programs, servers, and services that help you succeed by transforming information into impact.
For more information about the Microsoft Office system, go to: For More Information
For more information about Microsoft products and services, call the Microsoft Sales Information Center at (800) 426-9400. In Canada, call the Microsoft Canada Information Centre at (877) 568-2495. Customers in the United States and Canada who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can reach Microsoft text telephone (TTY/TDD) services at (800) 892-5234. Outside the 50 United States and Canada, please contact your local Microsoft subsidiary. To access information using the World Wide Web, go to:
For more information about the City of Des Moines, call (515) 283-4500 or visit the website at: