Monday, February 16, 2009

City Websites

Jill over at WLST put up a screenshot of Pepper Pike's new website. She also links to various city websites, mostly on the east side of Cleveland, but a couple of on the west side as well. Jill enthusiastically says:

Now, let’s see if we can get them to Twitter, start a ning, a blog (I love the Seneca County Blog as an example of a locality’s blog done right) and maybe even throw up public records on a wiki.

She closes the post asking for thoughts:

What do you think? Strengths? Areas for improvement? Who’s the audience? What purposes does it fulfill, still need to address? Especially heading into the second decade of this millenium.

I don't even know where to start. Let's see where it goes.

The Pepper Pike site is a good looking site, and easy to navigate. Some of the others are really nice looking too, amongst the horrors out there (don't look at Mayfield Village's. I said don't look at it!). You have to have a site that's easy to look at and navigate.

But when I read Jill's post and the enthusiasm for twitter or a blog, my first thought was "baby steps, Jill, baby steps". Like a simple RSS feed for news and/or announcements. Almost every site has a calendar of some sort, but no calendar file for me to import into my calendar. I'm specifically thinking of the Mayfield Heights site which runs Joomla. Joomla has both RSS and ics files out of the box. Additionally, if you look at From the Mayor's Desk, it is basically a blog. In fact, look at the url. It is a blog. But no RSS feed. How simple is that?

Actually, it makes me wonder why there isn't an RSS feed. I cannot imagine a developer working with Joomla not raising providing an RSS feed. Which says to me that someone decided not provide it, and I'd love to know why.

The other critical piece to this whole discussion is the importance placed on the website. A city will need to place a priority on maintaining the site. It cannot be an afterthought, but rather built into the process of the city's operations. Both the Pepper Pike and the Mayfield Heights sites place City Council and committee meeting minutes up on the site. (Again, it would be nice to have an RSS feed so that folks know that minutes have been added as opposed to going to the site to see.) A couple of the sites seemed to have the idea, but consistent updates and execution fell to the wayside along the way.

In order for there to be consistent execution, i.e., updates to the site, updating the sites needs to be in the "workflow" of the city. There needs to be a consensus that it is a critical service to residents that the site be updated consistently. But that also, in the in end and whether directly or indirectly, costs money.

And that brings us back to Jill's closing questions. The most important ones being "Who's the Audience" and "What need does it fulfill". For example, Jill mentions placing City Ordinances in the wiki. Regardless of whether a wiki is the appropriate technology for that specific function(it's not in my opinion), the question is who is the audience, and what need is it fulfilling.

Actually, City Ordinances seem like a pretty obvious thing to have online. The fact is that several of the sites that Jill linked to have ordinances online. I don't know whether they are updated or not though, and they mostly seem to use very specific systems designed solely for city ordinances. For example, Mayfield Heights' ordinances are hosted by the American Publishing Corporation website. Once there, it tells you through when the ordinances are updated - May 2008 in this case.

However, there is no way to know when that site is updated on the City site.

One last thing. Why can't these sites publish sites that meet web standards. Pepper Pike's is close with only 15 html validation errors, while Mayfield Heights' has 81 errors. By definition, if they are not html or css valid, they will not pass accessibility standards like Section 508.

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