MUNICIPAL WEB SITES: Planning and maintenance are critical issues
(from Maine Townsman, June 1999)
By Michael Starn, Editor

Municipal web sites in Maine have been growing rapidly in recent years. In November 1996, a Townsman article reported that 50 municipalities had web sites that were linked to the State of Maine’s web page. Today, over 180 municipal web sites are linked to the State page.

The reasons behind the rapid growth are obvious. Putting informational materials on the web is a bargain compared to printing that same information. Developers of web sites are hungry to find a niche in the municipal market and offering great deals to municipalities. With internet technology in vogue, municipal officials are finding volunteers and students eager to help with web site development.

All news about municipal web site development is not good news. In the rush to get a web site up and running, some communities (like many businesses) have created unplanned and poorly designed web sites.

Another problem with web sites that have been hurriedly put together and lack the commitment of the municipal leaders is that they are often neglected. Getting your site on the web is just the first step. To make it useful, the site needs to be maintained.

A debatable question is whether a poorly planned, unmaintained web site preferable to no web site at all? Everyone, however, will agree that a thoughtfully planned web site has much more value and reflects better on the community than an unplanned and unmaintained site.

 

PLANNING A WEB SITE

Web site development involves setting goals, identifying your audience, determining content and functionality, and visual design.

 

Setting Goals

While it may sound obvious, the setting of goals is often overlooked in the planning of a web site. What do you want the municipal web site to accomplish? What do other officials and employees of the municipality want? There will likely be differing opinions on the goals of the web site, so it is important that consensus be reached and that (very important) the elected officials, manager and department heads commit to the project. Their initial and continuing support for the web site will be critical to its success or failure.

Form a web site planning group or committee. While you don’t want it too large so as to make it unwieldy, be sure that key decision-makers in town government are involved. Get elected officials, the manager, and department heads communicating with each other about the site. And, while you will want to appoint a chair for the planning group, make sure that no one person controls the process.

Two schools of thought regarding the purpose of a municipal web site seem to have emerged. Some municipal officials think that the site should be used to showcase, or market, the community to prospective businesses, tourists, and other individuals outside the community. Others view the web site as a medium for communicating to residents within the community. And, there are those who feel a web site can accomplish both purposes.

It is important to reach common ground on the purpose of the web site. If municipal officials don’t know what they are trying to achieve with a site, then why build it?

Goals should be written down. The mission statement (goal) of the Raymond web site, reprinted in the November 1996 Townsman article, says that "The purpose and goals of the Town of Raymond’s World Wide Web Site are to increase the town’s visibility to any interested person or business; to make information about the town, its resources, and the town government accessible to the citizens of the town; to increase participation in clubs, governmental boards, and town activities amongst the citizens of the town; and to promote the economic interest of the town and its businesses."

 

Identifying Your Audience

This also may sound simple, but it is important not to assume that everyone involved has the same target audience.

Those who are planning the web site need to ask themselves some questions. Why will people come to the site and who will they be? Are the primary users of the site going to be real estate professionals, lawyers, surveyors and other professionals looking to access assessing or ordinance information? Will the users be students or other researchers seeking information about town government? Do you want business people looking at your site in hopes that they will locate their company in your town? Are you trying to showcase the community to potential tourists?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered. The focus and content of the site will be predicated on whom you identify as your target audience.

 

Content and Functionality

The most important part of a web site is content – just as the most important part of a magazine is the articles. A web site, like a magazine, must have content that is easy to read and understand. The site should be functional (well-organized) and simple to navigate (get around).

A common pitfall of writing is assuming – assuming that the reader knows as much about the subject as the writer does. It is important to step back and think about your readers, or audience. Do the readers understand the terminology; can they decipher the financial reports; does the information provided answer questions they may have? Not enough, too much?

Whether you or someone else has provided it, content should be tailored to your targeted audience. One way of doing this is by creating scenarios – puttting yourself in the position of the web site user. What kind of information do you want from your municipality? How comprehensive or concise do you want the information to be?

To serve its purpose, web site content needs to be functional, or well-organized. A theme of publication design is that "form follows function". This means that a well-written article and a simply designed and easy to follow layout is preferable to obtusely written articles with a glitzy design and unbalanced layout. Filling up a web site with superfluous written material and glitzy,overdone graphics will only confuse the web site user and slow down the process of getting information off the site

The structure of a web site allows the user to click from one item to another knowing at all times where he or she is. A properly structured web site can be enhanced with good visual design.

 

Visual Design

One of the web site’s main purposes is to provide users with a sense of place. They need to know where they are on the site, where they have been and how to get to where they want to be. A good site structure combined with an effective visual design enables users to construct a mental map of the site.

Visual design is the job of the "techies" or graphic designers. But, this does not mean that the municipality’s web site planners should stay out of visual design. Like telling an interior decorator your likes and dislikes in furnishing a house, the web site planning group will need to give guidance to the web site designers regarding the visual design of the site.

An excellent way of preparing yourself for the task of "visual design" guidance is by viewing other municipal web sites. See what you like or don’t like about other web sites. Try them out by creating a "scenario" – you are someone trying to get information from the site. Is their design too cluttered or is it crisp and inviting?

 

FUTURE OF MUNICIPAL WEB SITES

Although 180 Maine communities now have web sites, there are over 300 that do not. For many smaller municipalities, the development of a web site is a back burner project. It would be nice but there are many other things that will take priority.

Few people doubt, however, that the Internet will grow in importance. Many people believe that using the Internet will eventually be as commonplace as using a telephone. Differences of opinion seem to be over the timing – how long it will take – as opposed to its inevitability.

 

Cost/Benefit of A Web Site

Like any other municipal expenditure, the development of a municipal web site gets a lot of fiscal scrutiny. Will people use it? How much staff time will be involved in maintaining the site? Can the electronic copy replace hard copy (printed or photocopied documents)?

Many municipal officials acknowledge that, right now, web sites are an "iffy" economic proposition. Without volunteers, hungry web site developers, and the low cost of posting electronic copy, it would be hard for a municipality to justify the cost of a web site. The payback probably isn’t there, at least for the time being.

The Town of Kennebunk has one of the most comprehensive municipal web sites in Maine. When printed out in hard copy, the web site fills up two standard size three ring binders, approximately 750 pages. And that doesn’t include the tax maps and sales data which would comprise another three or four hundred pages.

Town Manager Barry Tibbetts, the chief architect and advocate of the site, says the cost justification comes from time savings. "I (as the assessor) was spending 50% of my time answering questions (from the public)," Tibbetts said. Now, realtors, attorneys and others seeking property tax maps and sales data can go directly to the web site. Clerical support to furnish this type of information has also lessened.

Likening municipalities to a business, Tibbetts says, "The product that municipalites sell is information." He believes that the Internet is an excellent medium to deliver that product.

 

Financial Transactions

Registering a car and paying excise taxes, buying hunting and fishing licenses, getting your dog license . . . it is not difficult to imagine these types of financial transactions being conducted over the Internet. That’s not to say that there aren’t hurdles to clear first, but all of these transactions can be done over the Internet and they probably will be done there in the not too distant future. The Secretary of State’s Office hopes to start with a few pilot communities doing online vehicle registrations within the next couple of years.

Transactions are the future of municipal web site, says Kennebunk’s Tibbetts. He points to the 24.6 million people who filed their federal income taxes electronically last year. Some of the fastest growing Internet stocks are for companies involved in E-commerce (financial transactions over the Internet). While it hasn’t reached tidal wave proportions yet, there has been and will continue to be a steady increase in the number of companies and governmental agencies conducting business over the Internet.

 

Resources

Some of the best resources on planning a web site come from the web itself. Ideas for this article came from "Squishy’s Crash Course in Information Architecture", written by John Shiple, and found at http://www.hotwired.com/webmonkey/98/28/index0a.html