What is the formula for an exceptional municipal Web site?

Key functions, content and characteristics each play a role in forming the foundation for excellence. In addition to providing a wealth of government information, today’s top-notch municipal Web sites provide a range of constituent services, help citizens feel a connection with their local government, promote the community, and serve as models of transparency in government.

A review of Massachusetts municipal Web sites provides numerous examples of innovation and exemplary service delivery.

Top Sites Wear Many Hats

Identifying the destination is key to deciding the best way to get there. As with any journey, this principle can be applied to the development and enhancement of a municipal Web site. Pinpointing the site’s key objectives will help to determine the blueprint for the site’s content, features and style.

Today’s exemplary local government Web sites strive to fulfill the following objectives:

  • 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
  • Attract business and tourism

While many of these areas overlap 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 it gives citizens greater access to comprehensive information about their governments than at any other time in history. Presented with the opportunity to peruse agendas and minutes of city council meetings, budget information, agency organizational charts, and online directories, for example, citizens can stay informed and connected with their governments, and therefore can take a more active role in the democratic process. An informed resident is an empowered resident.

The town of Amherst’s budget page provides residents with a one-stop resource for tracking documents related to proposed and adopted town budgets. The page includes links to Finance Committee reports presented at town meetings as well as the actual budget documents and related contact information.

Accountability. While financial statement audits, operating statistics, executive updates, and 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, and stand to benefit from increased citizen involvement.

By posting the results of its annual citizen survey, the town of Barnstable sends a two-pronged message to its residents that shows confidence in its performance, and, at the same time, a willingness to be up-front about areas of town government that might be in need of improvement.

Cambridge has posted its fiscal 2008 goals on the budget home page, just above the budget documents. By making its goals readily available, the city increases its accountability.

Financial Disclosure. In addition to keeping citizens informed, a good municipal Web site can also satisfy bond investors and work toward fulfilling secondary market disclosure requirements by posting annual and interim financial reports, bond rating information, bond referenda, project updates, and official statements.

The town of Concord features an entire section of “Important Documents,” including financial and budget materials. From the most recent official statement to the town’s “budget book” and audited financial statements, Concord provides one of the most comprehensive online document collections found on any municipal Web site.

Communication. Through e-mail, online feedback forms, and webcasts of town meeting or various board meetings, opportunities for two-way communication between citizens and local officials and other government staff have never been greater. Giving citizens the ability to communicate their thoughts and opinions enhances their 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 local governments invite and accept requests for proposals through their Web sites, increasing the efficiency of government business.

Information. 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 community’s municipal code, a Web site can reach out to “the masses” and educate citizens and others who are doing business with the local government.

Springfield’s home page does a great job of keeping residents informed about current events, local news and new Web site features. Its online calendar, available in daily, weekly, or monthly views, is current and includes entries from all city departments.

The “Living in Watertown” section of the town’s web site is a top-notch residents’ guide, including details pertaining to building permits, area health care resources, local media, trash collection, and local post offices.

Interactive map tools featured in a local government web site, like Boston’s “My Neighborhood” tool, allow residents to customize information-in this case, to find their closest local library, polling place, or trash pickup day.

Service Delivery. 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 many 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 of encouraging citizens to go online rather than stand in line has become a familiar tune. Save a stamp, or a trip to town hall.

Watertown residents can pay their parking tickets via the town Web site thanks to a contracted service. Likewise, Concord residents can pay their parking tickets online, as well as their electricity bill (Concord Municipal Light), curbside garbage collection fee, and property taxes through the town’s Online Payments center.

Quincy’s online Constituent Services tool is a “one-stop-shop” form that allows residents to report graffiti or other public nuisances, request assistance with housing or rent issues, get answers to school-related questions, seek help from Family Services, and more. Residents complete and submit the online form, which is then routed to the appropriate agency or department. Residents may track their request to ensure that it is being handled appropriately.

Promotion. Whether by encouraging economic development, increasing tourism, or attracting new residents, a municipal Web site can be a highly effective marketing tool. Area profiles, demographic statistics, local school and business information, impressive photographic images, and even sound bites help outsiders understand the character and lure of the municipality.

A beautiful photo tour of Quincy’s many landmarks and historic figures, complete with piano accompaniment, provides a glimpse of the local sights. Links to local attractions and services provides a great service to tourists considering a visit to the area. Lowell’s impressive economic development pages include a detailed local market profile, as well as a commercial site finder, descriptions of tax incentive programs, and more.

Information Is Vital

Content is at the crux of a top-notch Web site. Quality content defines a site’s purpose and effectiveness, and determines whether visitors will return. The content found on top Web sites is accurate, purposeful, relevant, current and cutting-edge.

  • Accurate: If information is posted on a Web site, it had better be correct.
  • Purposeful: Content is there for a specific reason, whether to inform, educate, inspire, provide instructions or assistance, or even to entertain.
  • Relevant: A municipal Web site audience can be very diverse, so the scope of content ought to be wide-ranging, but the tie-in to local government or civic affairs should be clear.
  • Current: Fresh information is helpful, stale information is not.
  • Cutting-edge: Content that goes beyond the ordinary and mundane keeps a site interesting, and encourages visitors to come back for more.

A decade ago, the typical local government Web site offered some type of communication from the chief executive officer or elected official, budget materials, perhaps economic development information, and a department directory. Now, we have come to expect greater depth and breadth when it comes to content.

Style, Pizzazz and Innovation

The exemplary Web site offers reader appeal through the use of graphics or other multi-media applications, an intuitive organizational structure, and helpful navigational tools. It offers fresh content and other features that catch the user’s attention, and invites them to return for repeated visits.

  • Freshness: Today’s best municipal Web sites are anything but stagnant. One of the greatest advantages of having an online presence is the ability to continuously provide fresh information.
  • Reader appeal: Today’s online visitors have been spoiled by the constant raising of the bar when it comes to graphics, multimedia functions, and navigational tools on Web sites. More often than not, most of us do judge a book by its cover-and first impressions count! While chock full of comprehensive information and resources, Boston’s Web site appears anything but cluttered. The site exudes sophistication and offers many state-of-the-art features, including podcasts and on-demand video.

Lynn’s Web site also features clean and colorful graphics. Its photos are beautiful, and the overall layout and sophisticated design make the site stand out among its peers.

  • Ease of navigation: Because of the vast amounts of information available to us, we like it to be organized into digestible pieces that can, in turn, increase our efficiency. Clear menu options and site search functions can help us quickly pinpoint specific information, while site maps clearly delineate the range of content included within a Web site.

Many Web sites now offer “quick links” to their most popular pages. Whereas many earlier municipal Web sites were organized by department or agency, many-if not most-have now shifted to a user-centric system based on the user’s anticipated needs. This shift recognizes that most users don’t think about which government department does what; they simply want to accomplish a particular task.

The City of New Bedford, with a population of 100,000, recently introduced a new version of its Web site, which combines freshness, appeal, and organization, with quality content that informs, educates and promotes the city. In a city press release announcing the “new and improved” Web site,

Mayor Scott Lang says that the many months of planning and development have translated into “a modern Web site that is user-friendly, updated, and accurately communicates the best of New Bedford to everyone who discovers our city through the Internet.” A visit to the site demonstrates that the city has hit the mark.

Note: This article, written by MuniNet editor Mardee Alvaro, was published in the summer 2008 issue of The Municipal Advocate, a quarterly publication of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.