What is the formula for an outstanding web site – particularly in the municipal arena? We believe that key functions, characteristics, and content each play a role in forming the foundation for a standard for excellence. This three-part series examines each of these components as they relate to state, county and local government web sites.

(This article is the first in a three-part series.)

Web Site Objectives Provide Backbone for Features: Top-Notch Web Sites Wear Many Hats As in any journey, you need to identify where you’re going before you can decide how to get there. The same principle can be applied to the development and enhancement of a municipal web site. Identifying the site’s key objectives will help determine the blueprint for the site’s content, features and style.

Today’s exemplary state, county or local government web sites:

  • empower and educate citizens
  • raise the level of government accountability
  • provide financial and secondary market disclosure information
  • deliver government services with increased efficiency
  • encourage communication, and
  • attract business and tourism.

While many of these areas overlap and/or build on each other, together they lead to overall increased efficiency of government and the democratic process.

Empowerment – One of the greatest advantages of the Internet is that more than any other time in history, citizens have access to comprehensive information about their governments. Presented with the opportunity to peruse agendas and minutes of city council meetings, county budget information, agency organizational charts and online directories, for example, citizens can stay informed and connected with their governments, and therefore take a more active stance in the democratic process.

Accountability – While financial statement audits, operating statistics, executive updates, meeting minutes are generally matters of public record, it takes a certain amount of courage to make them available for public scrutiny and potential criticism. Governments that take the nothing-to-hide approach are to be commended for this stance, and stand to benefit from increased citizen involvement.

– The City of Scottsdale has made it a regular practice to post proposed budget information in the Finance section of its web site, and to continually invite public input in the budget process.

– In posting its Strategic Plan – which includes specific strategic objectives in the areas of fiscal policy and community development, among others – the City Manger’s Office of Arlington, Texas sends a message to its citizens: The City is spending its resources, time and money, with specific goals in mind.

Financial Disclosure – A good municipal web site can also satisfy bond investors and fulfill secondary market disclosure requirements – in addition to keeping citizens informed – by posting annual and interim financial reports, bond ratings information, bond referenda, project updates and official statements.

– The City of Albuquerque provides one of the best Investor Information pages we’ve seen to date. In addition to financial reports, official statements, bond cusip and ratings information, the site includes interactive revenue data that can be tailored to fit the needs of a specific analysis.

– The District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer also hosts an exemplary web site – particularly in the area of financial disclosure and bond-related information.

– And in the county arena, Orange County, California does a fine job of providing not only financial and investor information, but also community economic updates, public finance materials and information about the county’s risk management programs.

Delivery of services – As recently as five years ago, municipal web sites that offered citizens the opportunity to pay their parking tickets or utility bills online were on the cutting edge. While most of today’s sites offer these services as “standard fare,” there are still sites that go above and beyond and offer the ability to check the status of a permit application, access court dockets, view road construction updates, and more. The mantra encouraging citizens to go online rather than stand in line has become a familiar tune.

Communication – Through e-mail, online feedback forms, and webcasts of town hall or various board meetings, opportunities for two-way communication between citizens and elected and/or appointed officials and other government staff have never been greater. Building on the concept of empowerment, the ability to communicate their thoughts, views and opinions enhances citizens’ role in government.

On the other side of the desk, governments are afforded an efficient and powerful way to reach out to citizens, potential business interests, investors, and job candidates. Many state and local governments invite and accept requests for proposals through their web sites, increasing the efficiency of government business.

Information/education – A web site has the potential to be an incredibly powerful resource guide. Whether it’s disseminating local news or announcements, spelling out procedures to apply for a building permit, or providing access to a city’s municipal code, a city or county web site can reach out to “the masses” and educate citizens and any other entity doing business with a state or local government.

– While Austin has redesigned its home page several times over the past years, news and notices of upcoming events has always remained at front-and-center stage.

Cedar Rapids includes a section within its Finance pages called “Bonds 101”, a primer designed to help everyday citizens better understand how and why municipal bonds are issued.

– Interactive map tools featured in a local government web site, like Durham’s impressive collection of GIS applications, for example, can literally help in navigating through a city.

Promotion/Publicity – Whether by encouraging economic development, increasing tourism, or attracting new residents, a government’s home page can be a highly effective marketing tool. Area profiles, demographic statistics, local school and business information, impressive photographic images, and even sound bytes help “outsiders” understand the character and lure of the state, county, or municipality.

– Through the use of beautiful photographs – even a virtual “walking tour” of downtown – as well as an impressive collection of “Facts and Figures” for business, community and tourists, Roanoke’s web site leaves online visitors with a lasting positive impression of the city. A variety of tools, and online forms, and descriptions of relocation incentives also help support local economic development efforts.

Part Two of this series will examine the characteristics of outstanding municipal web sites.