Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getting The Cobwebs Out Of The City Website

There’s not much that can be done to the city and county websites that would do any damage.

They are the digital equivalents of a three car pile-up on the interstate. Well, in the county’s case, it’s more like a five car pile-up.

If a public website is the on-line representation of a government’s persona, our governments’ personalities are defined by secrecy, misdirection and obfuscation. Even when you know information is on the website, it doesn’t mean you’ll ever find it. It’s been buried so expertly, it regularly requires a search party to find it.

It’s hard to fathom the fact that city and county government spend about $31 million a year on information technology, and that these websites are the best we can get.

Monkeys And Hamlet

That’s why the Wharton Administration is on the right track with its intention to overhaul the city’s website as part of its new transparency policies. While local government has a dismal record of imbedding new technologies in ways to open up the public sector and to create effective e-government, there’s no reason that the fundamentals of on-line transparency shouldn’t be done forthwith.

The Wharton Administration is currently circulating a survey asking for the public’s advice on improving the city website. It’s good that a usable, user-friendly city website is a priority of Mayor Wharton, and seven years of frustration with the county website fuel his determination to do something different in City Hall.

As the theory goes, if you lock a group of monkeys in a room with typewriters, they will eventually type Hamlet. In the meantime, they could be accused of typing out the Shelby County website, perhaps the most impenetrable government site anywhere.

Our Suggestions

As for the city website, it would be an improvement if it just got the basics right.

First, get rid of all the extraneous information. Who really is going to the city website for tourist information? Make it simple and make it about city government.

Second, don’t make us have to know the city organizational chart to find information. It’s a curious feature of local government websites that before a visitor can find the information that he needs, he needs to know what division or department it would be found in. Hell, we don’t even care what the org chart looks like, much less that it’s used to organize information on the websites. We just want to find what we need without having to click four times to get to it or rummage around to find out what department it’s in.

Third, it’s not just about an understandable website. More to the point, it’s about understanding writing. For example, it’s just hard to understand why there’s not someone among the 6,000 employees of city government who can be asked to write a easy-to-read summary of the 409-city operating budget. After all, the new transparency policy will be toothless if the information posted online is in the kind of bureaucratese that defies comprehension.

Fourth, post everything. A quick survey of studies and major reports prepared in the past 5-7 years tallies more than 165 of them. About five of them are on-line. Here’s a rule of thumb: everything goes on-line – tax freezes, contracts, special project reports and data that gives the public the ability to hold departments accountable. Some cities are doing some remarkable things by using GIS to measure city services and keep citizens informed, and there’s just no excuse why Memphis isn’t among them.

Be The Best

Fifth, don’t appoint a committee to build the new website. Group think is the enemy of a cohesive vision and execution of a quality website. That’s why we suggest that city government do something really revolutionary – forego one of those $1 million contracts with some corporate giant hired to build a new website. Rather, create a R & D war room by hiring 3-5 young web designers for $15,000 apiece and turn them loose to design the model 21st century government website.

Six, build a website with the user in mind rather than being driven by political egos and political agendas. Don’t talk to us like voters; talk to us like the people we are – the ones who pay your salaries. Tell us what we want to know, rather than what you think is in your political self-interest.

Seven, get serious about e-government. Every form or application in city government should be on-line – every one. Meanwhile, we ought to be able to do more than pay government money for tickets and taxes. Rather, we ought to be able to do anything on-line that we can do standing at a counter in a city department.
Meanwhile, dozens of governments are developing broadband networks for their communities, but Memphis isn’t one of them. Here, not even downtown Memphis is wireless. In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin introduced the "Atlanta Dashboard" that keeps city government managers focused on goals and indicators of success. Most of all, it opens a window for citizens to judge how city operations are performing.

Keeping Pace

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino is equipping all city vehicles to double as "digital street assessment tools" to measure vibrations created by rough roads and potholes, then send the data to a computer that maps locations using GPS. Shanghai, China, is doing much the same thing, but its constantly updated map is also used by private companies who want to know which routes are best on a given day.

At its most basic, there needs to be a plan to apply technology to improve administrative functions and to share more information within and without government. More to the point, this level of transparency can in fact transform the relationship between the government and the people it serves.

It's about creating government that's open for business when we need it, 24/7/365. It's about citizen-centric government and flattening the bureaucracy, and it's about increasing government efficiency and productivity, promoting transparency and accountability, and inviting the public into discussions and decisions.

That seems to be where the Wharton Administration is headed. It’s past time for Memphis to get into the first tier of cities using technology to modernize and economize its operations and to engage and involve its citizens.


Anonymous said...

So, who is receiving this survey? Just those that supported his campaign and the usual hangers on? We peons have something to say also. Why not put it on your blog site? Or in/on the CA?

Zippy the giver said...

PUT IT EVERYWHERE! Let anyone who wants to comment on it.
I think removing any links to any old sites would be a good idea too.

Anonymous said...

Follow AC on twitter or Facebook and you'll find the link.

Suzanne Allen said...

Here is the link:

Anonymous said...

Who really wants to follow A C on Facebook or Twitter?

Also remember this is Memphis. Lots of people are computer illiterate or have no computer at their disposal.

Find a way to take all his initiatives to the people. Might be old school, but here in Memphis it's needed. We are not Portland.

Thanks for the link Suzanne

Anonymous said...

The question that comes to mind is why didn't Wharton do all these grand things when he was county mayor and could do something about that godawful webiste? It seems like he's got a lot of brilliant ideas now that he's Memphis mayor that he never did when he was Shelby County mayor.

Anonymous said...

Wharton spent a lot of energy during the campaign on his facebook page which had 4000 or so fans. All these tweets and facebook stuff is digital masturbation for city hall while the rest of us just want them to do something.

Chuck said...

Dear Smart:

Re: your idea about broadband networks and wireless zones, we gave away a great public resource when we sold Networx. Now the corporate types have the upper hand.


Anonymous said...

Wow so much negativity on this thread!

Complain, complain , complain.

Anon 6:46. Are you suggesting we need input for the new website from computer illiterate people?

"Digital masturbation?" Really? Based on what? You are so certain that it won't make a difference. Please share your experience.

We go from a former Mayor with zero accessibility to a Mayor that uses social media to reach out to the individuals that he wants to prevent from leaving and still y'all complain.

Yes we all know this isn't Portland but thank goodness we have a Mayor now that realizes that we compete on a global scale.

Anonymous said...

My point is facebook and twitter are just for show and for the elites in a city where less than 50% of us have computers. Communicate with the masses, not just the techno crowd of young people. My problem is that spending so much time on FB and Twitter give the appearance of doing something innovatively when it's just for show and trying to make a 65-year-old guy with it.

gatesofmemphis said...

Citizens have a much easier time getting on a computer -- that they or a friend owns, or at a school, community center or library -- and solving their own problems than they have ever had driving/busing downtown, or trying to get a problem solved over the phone. I don't believe there's been a more universally accessible way for people to get the info they need and communicate with their elected officials and their staff. Not perfect but it's probably better than anytime since Memphis' population rose above 100.

The rise of smart phones, wireless broadband, and the inevitable price drops will make the reach even greater.

I hope that the Mayor will enlist citizens to redesign MATA next.

Anonymous said...

Gates, et al

Spend a day in front of the City Hall elevators and see how many people ask what on what floor they pay taxes. Same goes for county building. And, what's so sad is that they all have cash in there hands. They are not all elderly, by the way. It is just the way business is done. A huge segment of our community has no checking account or credit cards and do business in money orders and cash. And these are among our faithful well paid working class.

Zippy the giver said...

MOST Memphians in the inner city do not own a computer because they CAN'T AFFORD ONE.

Zippy the giver said...

Many barely have enough education to read.

We have the most innefficient wireless service on earth, we bill everyone for a last step technology that should be free by now, we should have it free, by our 22nd century public transit system, the trolley.
MLGW, the whole idea of it, and especially it's implementation, is a travesty of justice.

Anonymous said...

The site is being built by a contractor. It was offered to me to rewrite it, but FedEx pays better for contractors. The site has already been speced out and the new platform is modular so that should give it good growth potential.

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