Now is the time for municipalities, and even school districts and counties, to create websites that are always “on.” The private sector is well into the era of information/data sharing and doing business online. It’s time that we in the public sector recognized websites as a key service offering.
Yes, websites should rank right up there with trash collection, tree maintenance, human services, permitting and other critical services. This is more important now than ever as we enter into a phase of keeping taxes below a 2 percent cap.
Municipalities have the opportunity to offset reduced appropriations and services by creating a robust web presence.
According to the Experian Simmons Spring 2009 New Media study, 80 percent of those 18-24 first go to the internet when researching community events and resources— before newsletters, bulletin boards or even a visit to Town Hall. Seventy percent of those 25-34, 50 percent for those 35-49 and 30 percent for those 50+ also go to the internet first. This is a key motivation for municipalities, no matter what size, to design and build websites that are able to meet their resident’s and visitor’s needs. Many municipalities aren’t aware that their residents want more from their municipal website.
By contrast, private industry uses the internet extensively to market their products and services. They provide product overviews, give pricing and allow users to ask questions and make complaints. But among New Jersey municipalities, though 90 percent have websites, the majority haven’t built websites that meet user needs for comprehensive information and the ability to do business online.
The 2010 Department of Community Affairs checklist
suggests that municipal websites include:
• both proposed and adopted budgets for a least 3 years;
• notifications for solicitation of bids and RFP’s;
• employee business contact information;
• minutes and agendas for governing bodies, planning board of adjustment and commissions;
• proposed ordinances for public hearing and all other required public notices; and,
• annual, up-to-date municipal and land use ordinances.
According to survey results, 50 percent of municipalities do not address many of these best practices. If your municipality does not meet these best practices, the municipality could lose a portion of its State Aid.
As town leaders work to stay within the 2 percent property tax cap, they will find that websites can and will play a bigger role. Since the internet is the first choice of most residents who are seeking community information, they represent a huge opportunity for taxing entities. There is a tremendous cost savings when residents use the website for information instead of calling or stopping by town hall.
Also as many municipalities move to shorten workweeks, an effective web site—available 24/7—can help fill the gap.
I have spent a great deal of time researching and understanding what defines great municipal, school district and county websites, and at the same time documented best practices for web design and content needs. The majority of municipal websites are “homegrown.” Although this might save some dollars upfront, these sites often don’t meet the needs of site visitors. They are hard to use, and don’t provide up-to-date information.
Taxing entities that use best practices with their site design, content and management will experience a higher percentage of satisfied users, more unique visitors and longer site visits. A satisfied user will visit your site more often to get their questions answered and do their business online. It’s critical that a municipality understand their resident’s needs, and what their residents want to do online. A great website will seek to address as many needs and goals of a site visitor as possible at the right cost.
Municipalities need to think about supporting mobile applications too. According to comScore, as of Sept-ember 2010, 35 percent of mobile phone subscribers ages 13+ use their phones’ internet browser, and this usage is trending up. Municipal web strategies should include a mobile access component.
MUNICIPALITIES HAVE THE
OPPORTUNITY TO OFFSET REDUCED
APPROPRIATIONS AND SERVICES BY
CREATING A ROBUST WEB PRESENCE
Social media is also an important part of a best practice internet strategy. Fifteen percent of all web site visitors visit social media sites. So including twitter, facebook, blogs and other interactive media in connection with your website will increase your ability to communicate with your residents on a regular basis.
More and more people are using the internet to get information during emergencies. A recent survey by the American Red Cross showed that the internet is used 37 percent of the time by those 18 years and older to get information about an emergency, only behind TV and radio. Municipalities can use their website and social media to provide up-to-the-minute data and preparedness in times of emergency.
Web-based applications are another aspect of site design that a municipality can incorporate into their website. These applications can include online payment, compliant logging/tracking, contact management, event calendars, facilities reservation, permitting, recreational sign-up and code access to name a few. These applications run 24/7, providing access even when the municipality is “closed.” Additional applications include social media, photos, videos, access to public meetings, directions, GIS, emergency notifications and newsletter sign-up.
A typical website investment, along with the appropriate maintenance, will pay for itself in 12 to 24 months. Saying yes to the Department of Community Affairs’ seven questions checklist for websites could, at a minimum, save a municipality an additional 1 percent of their State Aid in 2011. Based on private industry models, a municipality should set aside .2 percent of their budget to build their internet capabilities. With this level of investment, your website can become a key municipal service.
Residents, property owners and business partners need a site that
can provide up-to-date content and the ability to do business 24/7. Is
your town’s website meeting these requirements? If you’re not sure, execute a survey to understand your resident’s website desires, and find out why now is the time to make your website a key service.
First published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 88, Number 1, January 2011