Local Government Websites Suck (And They Don't Have To!)
Local government is the most important level of government there is. No level has more power to directly impact your day-to-day life with services such as police, fire, garbage pick-up, and plowing. Because of this impact, it’s important to try and keep up with what they’re doing. It can often be really hard, though, to show up to meetings from 2-4 times a month and sit through lengthy discussions about zoning, business permits, and other mundane but necessary minutiae of running a city or county. Because I’m at home every evening with a toddler while my wife goes to school, it’s near-impossible for me to make the trek of almost 90 blocks to keep tabs on the Salt Lake County Council. I thought I could find an easy way to keep up on them via the county website; I thought wrong.
It didn’t take much poking around to realize that this was a site hopelessly stuck in designs that would have been acceptable a decade ago. RSS? Totally missing. E-mail alerts about updates? MIA. Live-streaming of council meetings (or even just a video archive)? Fugghedaboutit. The only way to know what the county is doing is to check the website on a “regular” basis and find some way to get down there once a week to attend meetings.
In this day and age, there’s no excuse for being so inept at providing information to citizens. CMS platforms like Joomla and Drupal cost nothing but the server they’re installed on. WordPress will even let you setup a free hosted account. You have an instantly up-to-date multi-user platform supporting RSS and e-mail notifications. Citizens can know immediately what’s going on and determine if it affects them.
And what about meetings? Services like Ustream will let you stream video for free and even include a two-way chat capability to allow remote viewers to participate. You also have an instant archive of meetings. Citizens who want to see what’s going on but can’t make it can still participate in the process.
So cities, what’s holding you back? For the cost of a cheap webcam and 20 minutes or so of your time, you can be more wired than almost everyone else. If you’re intimidated, I’ll make you an offer: buy me dinner from one of your local eateries (p.s. I’m cheap and like “greasy spoon” places) and I’ll help you get started and show you how to use the stuff. I’m happy to sacrifice some of my free time to improve the process for everyone. (And yes, that’s a standing invitation.)