The Green Governance Award won by the City of Grand Prairie demonstrates that every day there are new examples of how citizens’ expectations of local government are changing – especially in the growing importance of local government websites. Why?
Availability of online services and information in the private sector has increased citizen demand for 24/7 access to public sector services. This drives the need to turn older, static websites into digital town halls that allow people to participate in the political process and provide online services that let citizens and businesses transact with government in a simple and effective manner. Establishing a local government website as a trusted source of information and useful portal for everything from paying taxes to applying for government jobs is central to meeting the expectations of today’s citizens.
A 2011 Pew Research Center study of three communities found:
• Citizens who think local government does well in sharing information are also more likely to be satisfied with other parts of civic life.
• Social media…and mobile connectivity (are) beginning to affect people’s interactions with civic life.
• When citizens feel empowered, communities benefit in both directions. Those who believe they can impact their community are more likely to be engaged in civic activities and are more likely to be satisfied with their towns.
In the Pew study, 95 percent of respondents said it was important to have “a central location for civic information that is maintained by the government.” Yet many reported that when they tried to use the internet to get local civic information, they could not find what they were seeking. Only 37 percent said the information presented to them was very clear and easy to understand.
So what does this tell us?
Having a website is important, but simply creating one is not enough. It must be easy to use, provide useful, timely information, and offer online services that make life easier for citizens.
The good news is that forward-thinking cities and counties across Canada are embracing the concept.
In British Columbia, Port Moody added video streaming to its website (www.portmoody.ca) so citizens can view council meetings online at their convenience. Citizens also can use the website to pay utility bills, parking tickets, and renew a business or dog license. Online property management services, registration and payment for recreation and training programs are other valued website offerings.
In times of crisis, we’ve seen that information delivered quickly to citizens is much more than convenient – it’s vital.
The value of online communication was clearly demonstrated in the city of Medicine Hat, Alberta (www.city.medicine-hat.ab.ca) in June 2013 when the South Saskatchewan River flooded, causing the evacuation of 10,000 people from the city. Medicine Hat’s integrated website, Facebook and Twitter portals kept residents informed of flood levels, bridge and road closures, re-entry advisories, and, at one point, clarified false reports that had begun to circulate.
Clearly, a municipal website is only as good as the information it contains. A municipality’s commitment to transparency requires a commitment to frequently updating its website content.
Government employees in the Yukon city of Whitehorse (www.city.whitehorse.yk.ca) post as much information as possible on their website as soon as possible. They report that the ease of using a flexible content management system has helped keep their site current, which has made them more accountable and boosted citizen trust and confidence in local civic leaders.
There’s no one-size-fits-all model for what information should be available on local government websites. But finding answers to the following questions can guide those decisions:
• What questions are residents asking in emails or calls?
• What kind of information is being sought in requests for public records?
• What pages on your current site are visited the most; where are site visitors spending the most time; and what are the top search phrases?
Lacombe, Alberta’s website (www.lacombe.ca) serves as a two-way communications portal, offering a feedback link near the top of every page to encourage residents to share their thoughts on topics ranging from website content to issues like recycling and zoning. During Lacombe’s 2014 Winter Challenge, the website helped citizens gear-up to become active again. And more than 130 local businesses are registered on the site’s business directory, which serves as the main web presence for many small businesses.
The task for government website developers is to look at trends in the private sector and translate them in ways that make sense for the unique needs of the public sector. The bottom line is that today’s digital technology is a major force in increasing citizen participation and fostering greater accountability of governments at all levels. As citizen expectations change, we will continue to look for what’s next on the horizon.