Well here's a lofty goal from Oakland's City Hall:
We are excited to announce that we have started the process of overhauling the City's web site: www.oaklandnet.com. Our goal is to launch the best municipal web site in the country!
To that end, this month the City Administrator's Office and the Department of Information Technology are hosting four community meetings to gather input from the public about how to improve the current web site. Topics will include: accessing key information and documents, making on-line payments, adding new features, and more. Meeting participants and survey respondents will be entered in a drawing for a free iPod nano.
Those unable to attend one of the community meetings can provide their feedback by participating in a quick, on-line survey (visit www.oaklandnet.
com/survey). For more information, contact: (510) 444-CITY or webteam@oaklandnet. com.
LIST OF MEETINGS:
- Tuesday, November 13, 2007; 7 pm to 9 pm: Lakeside Park Garden Center, 666 Bellevue Avenue (Lake Merritt).
- Wednesday, November 14, 2007; 7 pm to 9 pm: César E. Chávez Branch Library, 3301 E. 12th Street, Suite 271 (in the Fruitvale Transit Village).
- Thursday, November 15, 2007; 7 pm to 9 pm: Leona Lodge, 4444 Mountain Boulevard.
- Saturday, November 17, 2007; 10 am to 12 pm: Eastmont Substation, 2651 73rd Avenue at Bancroft.
At first I thought, well, it doesn't have to be the best in the country ~ just make it so constituents can pay parking tickets on-line, and apply for permits, and even figure out when large development projects have been submitted for review ~ simple things like that. As it is now, even I, a City employee, can't find information buried in the Planning & Zoning section, and I am embarrassed by how primitive our page is for the Oil Independent Oakland (OIO) By 2020 Task Force, compared to Portland's flashy site (and by flashy, I mean they include "fancy" stuff like images and pull-down menus). All I do is submit the content for the OIO page; we have no tech support to make it more user-friendly or interactive, or even, say, well, pretty.
So I searched around on the inkernet, looking at other City web-sites, wondering what makes for a good municipal website -- and does "good" always mean useful? I mean, there are a lot of very tech-savvy people here in Oakland and I'm sure some of them/us, would love to see the City incorporate the latest web tools, such as podcasts, blogs, interactive maps, and whatever else all those fancy gadgets can do. Do our residents want that, though? Shouldn't we first make simple things available, such as paying parking tickets on-line, or even implementing a community-service program to pay off parking fines? I hope residents attend the Community Meetings and really tell us what they want.......
The meeting announcements have been circulated on-line, via yahoo groups, list-servs, and email blasts -- but what percentage of Oaklanders have computers and internet access? I've heard that question raised in the context of arguing that the City doesn't have enough resources to devote to a website overhaul, and even if we did spend the money necessary, would it be worth it? How many Oaklanders would actually use it? On the other hand, for the disabled and senior citizens, the internet might be the easiest, or even the only, way they can access city-related information. Beyond making it easier for Oaklanders to do things such as apply for permits on-line, wouldn't it save the City money in the long run, in both direct costs and indirect costs such as valuable staff time expended fulfilling routine information requests that could easily be routed through the city website?
In my on-line search, I found that the Indianapolis Public Art Program was the first to start an online system of video podcast interviews with artists and tours. Now they are the first to master the new Google map programs, providing very easy navigation of the city to find public art by geography, type and artist. But that wasn't enough for them -- the question they now ask is whether they will become the first to succeed on iphone integration with cell phone tours, visuals, directions and videos(!) That would be amazing. ~ But can I pay a parking ticket on-line? It turns out, YES, you can do that on the City of Indianapolis' website. The main page feels a little cluttered but it didn't take long to find the pages for paying fines, applying for permits, etc.
I also found that, in 2001, the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University conducted a study of 1,506 City government web pages for the 70 largest Cities in America. [I searched around but did not find an update of the 2001 Study, nor a similar, more recent assessment.] The 2001 study, Urban E-Government: An Assessment of City Government Websites ranked the City of San Diego's website # 1, followed by Albuquerque in 2nd place and Seattle in 3rd place. It was interesting to see how different the sites look, and the types of information each City prioritizes. How do we figure out which model fits best in Oakland? Or, should there be one standard model for all Cities? Ack, the more I look into this, the more questions I seem to be asking......
So I searched around some more ~ wondering if in fact anyone, anywhere, decided to actually put the horse in front of the cart, and perhaps develop a set of guidelines for government websites. I mean, is a municipal website just like any other website? Like a corporate website, or a retail website, or some other industry? Are all Users alike, do they all want the same things (user-friendly interface, easy access to information, etc)?
Well, I didn't find anything for U.S. Cities ~ no Federal mandate,
no Federal Task Force, no recommendations from any local government
groups. I found only a Quality Framework for UK Government Website Design, published in 2003 [no updates] by the Prime Minister's e-Government Unit, which listed some admirable goals
to support citizen-centered public service reform; but that site seems
to maintained for historical purposes only now. Even worse, a review of the Framework praised its potential but criticized its execution, summing it up as a "missed opportunity."
With the dizzying speed of our growing dependence on the Internet, has anyone in the U.S. studied how we can use it to make public service more accessible on a local level? Surely someone has, right? Someone please send me the link, or the Report, or the Study, or the notes scribbled on a coffee-stained napkin ~ anything.
~ The closest useful study I could find was the MuniNet Guide's 2007 Top Picks for web sites in the Public Policy & Administration or “Think Tanks” category. This list could be useful to city governments in terms of the Top Picks' unique contributions to advancing reform and stimulating innovation in areas with municipal relevance. MuniNet goes on to note that "the Top Picks in this category provide insightful research, offer unique ideas, and recommend viable strategies. They also meet the general criteria for all MuniNet Top Picks - including overall quality, fresh content, intuitive organization, handy navigation tools, and appealing aesthetics." All of this is great ~ it's useful and cutting-edge and exciting. But at the end of the day the question remains ~ is this what residents want from their City's website?
Speaking from experience, I think perhaps that people who access government websites also want transparency and accountability ~ that is, if the User feels something is difficult to find on the City's website, their first thought isn't "bad design," "clunky interface," or "I'll find what I need somewhere else." No, their first thought is, "What are they hiding from me?" I know this ~ I speak from experience ~ from dozens and dozens and dozens of constituent calls with this very complaint.
So, the government website must not just provide information, it must provide confidence in the public process, comfort in the Sunshine Ordinance and the Brown Act, and a feeling of community, of actually feeling connected to your public officials. Oh, and it should be fun, interactive, cutting-edge and easy to use.
That is a Tall Order. Are you up to it? Anyone? Anyone?