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Hands holding a computer tablet with photos rising out of the screen - The secrets of Middletown's Winning Website

Mayor Gerard P Scharfenberger

I’m proud to report that our township’s website was named the Best Municipal Website in the state in an E-government poll conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Out more than 500 municipal websites, Middletown’s site ranked number one based on a combination of content availability and ease of use.

The township also earned top marks in the individual categories of ease of use, citizen interaction and content. We’re very proud that Monmouth University’s findings confirmed our assertion that we’re on the right track in using the web as a primary tool to interact with our citizens.

Fifteen years ago, the township communicated through printed newsletters, sent several times a year. Otherwise, residents stopped by Town Hall or called if they needed assistance.

Today we live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, social networking and smart phones. E-mail and texts often trump phone calls and almost no one waits for the morning edition of the newspaper to get the latest news. Middletown has worked hard to keep up with the times. Now the township’s website is the primary portal through which we communicate and interact with our citizens.

We’ve found that by taking certain steps, we’ve improved the effectiveness of our site. Although they are not really secrets, I consider them the secret to our success.

Do an Overhaul In 2010 township leaders decided to overhaul our website. After years of adding information and features, the site had become unwieldy with well over 500 pages, a cumbersome site map and a cluttered home page. The goals of our redesign included enhancing government transparency, making the site more user-friendly, and highlighting interactive components. In addition, we wanted to encourage residents to use the website as their first avenue for communication, since it is available 24-7.

Organize Based on the Users’ Perspective The website was previously organized based on the township’s organizational structure. While we know which departments manage various services, many of our residents don’t. For example the Clerk’s Office manages parking permits, the Health Department handles animal control and marriage licenses, Public Works collects brush and leaves, etc. The departmental structure made it difficult for the public to quickly locate the information they were seeking.

After attending several seminars and reviewing many government websites, township staff collaborated with our website provider, Gov-I, to develop a new website design that offered vertical navigation by subject and horizontal navigation by broader-based topics such departments and government. The new website would also use “breadcrumbs” on each page to aid in navigation up and down the site’s hierarchy.

Provide Links The center of the homepage offers recent news and notices and a calendar. The calendar section provides highlighted events, links to keyword calendars such as ‘meetings’ and ‘recreation.’ Our site also provides links to popular event calendars such as those for the library and Middletown Arts Center. Keyword pages such as ‘senior services’ and ‘marriages’ were also created to help users easily find all the information related to a single subject.

Use Fewer Pages In addition to a whole new look, the total number of pages was reduced by more than half. With related information on fewer pages, users had to click less to find the information they needed.

Listen to Focus Groups and Feedback Once a draft design was developed, the township organized a focus group of residents and employees to review the new site. Our goal was to get the end-user’s perspective.

Thanks to their insights, the township was able to fine-tune our design. Among the group’s many suggestions was to place the search at the very top of the homepage and to list topics alphabetically, instead of using a subjective hierarchy.

The new website was launched in 2011. We continue to make changes based on user feedback.

One popular move was to add ‘Middletown Marvin,’ a prominent button that takes users to the township’s service request system. By simply telling people this was a place to get help with a problem (as opposed to the place to file a municipal service request), use of the online request system blossomed. No one knew what a municipal service request was, but everyone understood ‘click here’ if you have a problem.

We’ve also added a few more subjects to the homepage such as ‘Township Maps’ and ‘Public Safety’ after learning that residents could not readily find the information.

Provide Alerts and Social Media More than 11,000 people have registered with the website to receive emergency alerts via email and text.

In response to the growing role that social media has in society, especially among young people, the township created a presence on Facebook and Twitter in 2012. Over 1,000 people receive township updates through Facebook and more than 800 follow us on Twitter.

However, we also still print the township newsletter, though less frequently than we did a decade ago. We believe it is important to maintain a variety of communication resources to meet the needs of as many residents as possible. Many of our seniors, for example, still prefer printed information.

Automate the Update Process Despite having a small IT department and one Public Information Officer, the township is able to keep the website, Twitter and Facebook updated. Each time an item, such as an important notice, is posted to the website the web software automatically turns each posting into a tiny url on Twitter. We then use Twitter’s 3rd party app to post the information directly to Facebook.

We also know that it’s important to post new information as soon as it becomes available so residents remain confident they can rely on it, especially during emergencies. For township staff, the key to keeping communication resources current is the use of web portals through which updates can be made from anywhere with a laptop and an internet connection.

Plan for Emergency Communications One of the township’s first real-time web postings was during the Blizzard of 2010. Weather and snow plowing updates were posted throughout the night and the following day by the Public Information Officer, who was in regular communication with the Public Works Department. The postings were well received and appreciated by the community.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Middletown sent more than 1,250 messages using all available communication resources. This included the Mayor posting nightly recovery updates on YouTube. For many residents, the smart phones on which they received township emails and texts were their only access to information in the days immediately following the storm.

Monmouth University officials present Middletown officals with top ten web site award
Pictured (left to right) at the awards ceremony for Monmouth University's website poll are Patrick Murray, Director, Monmouth University Polling Institute; Kathryn Kolby, Director, Monmouth University Graduate Program in Public Policy; Middletown Mayor Gerard P. Scharfenberger; Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante; Municipal Information Services Director Todd Costello; and Public Information Officer Cindy Herrschaft. Middletown officials accepted the plaque for the Best Municipal Website in New Jersey.

While the website remains the cornerstone of the Middletown’s communications package, we also use Reverse 911, a government and school cable access channel, an emergency AM radio station and a printed newsletter. The Reverse 911 system is completely integrated within the website portal and allows staff to use map-based, ESL (Eligible Subscriber List) and custom dial lists that are directly linked to our database of registered users.

With the increased need for more electronic communication, you have to be able to monitor as well as gauge how much and how fast your data can be distributed. Our provider has worked in conjunction with township staff to find the most optimum speeds for sending Reverse 911 calls and distributing messages. Staff can also use this system for SMS alerts to our police officers for emergency situations and crossing guards in case of inclement weather.

Middletown’s government and school access cable station can be updated from anywhere via a web portal. The station also broadcasts the community bulletin board through the website in case residents don’t have cable service. The small-band, emergency AM radio station can also be updated from anywhere using a cell or landline telephone.

Keep Looking Ahead Our latest communication endeavor is to create our very own app. We hope to make it available soon.

We’re very proud that our website was named the best in the state by Monmouth University, but we know the job is far from done. We’re sure we’ll continue to make changes to the site as the interests and needs of residents evolve.

Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante, MIS Director Todd Costello and Public Information Officer Cindy Herrschaft contributed to this article.

 

Originally published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 90, Number 6, June 2013

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