Municipal Websites, E-Mail and Internet Use
A Guide for
By Morris A. Enyeart
League Web Advisory Consultant
CEO, City Connections LLC
The Internet has changed the way municipalities communicate with and deliver services to their residents. While static information still has a place on a municipal website, the advent of online forms, surveys, audio/video, online payment of taxes and resident notification systems have changed municipal websites from a one-way street to a two-way street. These and other changes have served more than any other factor to open municipal government to the public.
The question for the elected official is: what should I look for when I examine our municipal website and seek to implement changes that will further serve our staff and residents? The following areas can be considered the low hanging fruit that is relatively easy to implement and will deliver the most benefit for the expense.
Internet and E-Mail Use by Staff This is an area that has been somewhat neglected by municipalities as they have moved toward integrating the Internet as a resource for municipal workers. The vast majority of employees would not think about sitting back in their chair and reading the latest novel or playing a game of cards during working hours. It should be no different for Internet use.
Incorporate a policy into the employee handbook stating that Internet access and e-mail is provided to enhance the person’s ability to do their job. Personal use of the Internet and e-mail should be limited to break and lunch periods.
The administration does have the legal right to review the email in a staff member’s mailbox. In addition make sure that staff members receive periodic education regarding the need and process to treat email as a public record. The lack of proper archiving of e-mail can lead to much higher than necessary litigation expenses.
Check to see how (and if) e-mail is being archived to preserve government records. Most municipalities need to improve in this area. Document management and E-Discovery systems to automatically manage e-mail records retention are beyond the financial reach of most municipalities in these difficult economic times. That does not mean there is nothing the municipality can do. Create an archive mailbox and train staff to send a copy of all municipal correspondence to the mailbox. Your mail system should also send a copy of incoming email to the archive if possible. Periodically, depending on the volume of e-mail, download the archive and use a product such as Adobe Acrobat to convert it to a PDF format for archiving to a DVD. This process will preserve the original format with any attachments and can be searched when needed later.
E-mail addresses Municipal e-mail addresses should be structured as firstname.lastname@example.org; e.g., email@example.com. A recent review of 334 municipalities by City Connections found that the e-mail addressing scheme used by 78 percent of New Jersey municipalities was not correct.
Public e-mail systems such as Yahoo and Gmail should not be used because of the difficulty of maintaining government records. E-mail addresses should not use the person’s name because the person may leave or change positions and the email should remain with the position for the new person assuming that position. The only exception is for Council/Committee elected officials. While the municipality has a legal obligation to archive an elected official’s e-mail, the e-mail from one elected Council/Committee member does not usually flow to the person who replaces him/her. In this case it is permissible to use something like Councilmember-Jones@mytown.org. Because the mayor’s e-mail is typically addressed to the position and not the person, the email address should simply be Mayor@mytown.org and not use the Mayor’s name. Again, the purpose is to provide continuity for archiving and periods of change. Check the League’s website for a more complete presentation of this area at www.njslom.org/93rdconf/presentations.html (“E-Mail Management—Tips, Traps, Tricks” presented at the 2008 NJLM Annual Conference).
Municipal Websites The best municipal websites possess four characteristics. First, the content is updated frequently. Second, the website offers interactive, two-way communication for a variety of services. Third, the design facilitates easy navigation and is handicapped accessible. Fourth, the website employs current technology such as audio, video and resident notification functions.
Content Updated Frequently Residents and other visitors do not go to a municipal website for the design or ease-of-navigation. They visit municipal websites for the content and if you want to use the website as an effective information distribution system, it must be updated on a regular basis. Do a departmental survey and find out when the last time content was updated and how often it is updated. Is current staff and contact information reflected along with core information about the department’s services? Ask each department what the three most frequent questions are by phone and in-person visitors. Make sure the answers are included in the departmental information. That not only benefits the website visitor, it also benefits the staff member by decreasing their daily interuptions. Be sure to include the Mayor and governing body in the survey.
Include a section for publishing information and the municipality’s position on important community topics. Residents do want to know what is happening and what the municipality is doing about important local issues such as COAH (Council on Affordable Housing).
Interactive, Two-Way Communication In addition to the static information your municipality is providing for residents, there should also be online communication avenues back to the municipality for residents to ask questions, request additional information, report problems and participate in important issues.
In the departmental content survey referenced above, also check to see that the three or more most frequently requested forms from each department are on the website.
For example, Millstone Township (Monmouth County) and Aberdeen Township included residents when they created interactive letters to key legislators and State Administration officials so residents could join the township in sending electronic letters expressing their opposition to Third Round COAH rules and Procedures. Readington Township placed an online survey on their website for residents to comment on the performance of the local cable company during renewal discussions. Franklin Township (Somerset) enabled people to register online for smoking cessation programs run by the Health Department.
Some forms can be completed online and sent immediately; others can be printed and faxed or mailed. In all three cases, you have made it easier for residents to obtain services.
Handicapped Accessibility and Navigation The municipal website should be accessible by people who cannot see graphics or click on most menus. This area warrants a more complete discussion at another time, but check to see if graphics and menus contain an alternative text description at a minimum. Move your cursor over a graphic if you are using Internet Explorer. Does a small text bubble appear? If not, the site may not be handicapped accessible. Check with your web services developer to see if they are including ALT tags and meta information in the web pages.
Employ Current Technology There is a clear line to follow here. There is no need for a municipal website to try to be on the cutting edge of technology. It is simply not cost effective in these tight economic times. However, you should also recognize that functions such as posting audio/video is no longer leading edge technology and can be used effectively to post governing body and committee/board meetings. And it is not just meetings; for example, Florence Township offers a video from the Arbor Day Foundation on recovering from storm damage.
Resident Notification Services Establish an opt-in resident e-mail notification list that can be used to inform residents when the website is updated, alert them to a road closing, or an upcoming event. Make sure the email service follows the CAN-SPAM rules to prevent the municipality from being placed on a blocked list by Internet providers such as AOL, Comcast, Yahoo and others. Every email should have the physical address of the municipality as well as a link to unsubscribe. If notices are sent in rich HTML format (you can see graphics and formatted text, also make sure a plain text version of the message is being sent. Many people have HTML formatted messages turned off to reduce the exposure to viruses. If a municipality is sending out its own notices, we recommend the list server be at a different physical location from the web server so if there is an electric outage, you can still send resident notices.
League’s Web Advisory Service Remember the League of Municipalities provides its members with a free Web Advisory Service. If you have questions, www.njslom.org/membership_benefits.html is a good place to start.
Morris Enyeart is the League of Municipalities Advisor for the Web Advisory Service. He is also CEO and President of City Connections. Questions regarding this article may be addressed to Dr. Enyeart directly by sending email to Enyeart@cityconnections.com