Why Can’t the City Get a Real Webmaster?

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Normally, I wouldn’t volunteer for something in order to get it done, and then bitch about how one has to volunteer for something in order to get it done. But after spending time I can’t afford, once again manipulating !#&@*# document and image files to upload onto NorthfieldPlan.org in the hopes of making City process more transparent, I’m fed up. It’s high time WE CITIZENS put some real political pressure on.

When the City started the Comprehensive Plan/Land Development Regulations revision process, staff (Brian O’Connell and Dan Olson), the consultants (ACP Visioning and Planning), and the planning commissioners (including Ross and myself) all believed that citizen participation and getting information out was extremely important, and were committed to those ideas. Making information available via the web was a key part of that strategy. The problem was that no one at City Hall really knew how to make that happen. Since I was a True Believer, was moderately web-savvy, and had access to a server, I volunteered to build an officially sanctioned sub-site for the Comp Plan revision process (NorthfieldPlan.org) What can I say, I’m a patsy.

Griff has repeatedly asked the question, Hey, if the City spent $80k on a new website, how come it doesn’t work the way it should? (Actually, the money came out of the EDA, because the EDA members – of whom I was one at the time – believed the song-and-dance about how a good website was an economic development tool. Yeah, it could be. If it actually contained current, timely, useful, interactive, multimedia material. But that’s a whole ‘nother post. And the “new” website is about three years old now.)

Anyway, the content-management system built for the City is fine, but there’s no one minding the store. When the website was done, the understanding was that departments should/would have the freedom to manage their own little online fiefdoms. As a general rule, however, the management level of City staff is just not very tech-literate. I don’t mean that upper-level staff should spend their time uploading files, even if they had the technical skill to do so. In fact, no one would seriously think that a volunteer member of that vortex known as the Planning Commission should spend their time on that task either. What I mean is that since most of the City department heads don’t have a good understand of how Internet technology is being used or where it’s going, in either municipal or other contexts, it’s difficult for them to wrap their heads around what can or should be made available on the City website. Some of the administrative staff might have a better understanding of that, but they don’t have the authority to determine what should be put online or to be proactive enough to seek content.

What we need, Mr. Roder, Mr. Lansing, esteemed Councilors, is known in Internet parlance as a “webmaster”. On the most basic note, this is a person who puts stuff on the website and makes sure it all works correctly. One person should have the oversight and authority for the entire website, and this isn’t something that can be done in only an hour a day in someone’s “spare time”. In an ideal world, the webmaster would be not just a glorified clerical worker with tech skills, but someone who understands this Brave New World, and isn’t afraid of its inhabitants. If someone with the appropriate skill set is given the right authority, the webmaster can go a long way towards making the City website useful for both City employees, residents, and businesses.

I once suggested to both Library Director Lynne Young and City Administrator Al Roder that perhaps a staff librarian could be given the responsibility for managing the City website. They’re information experts, after all, and are doing a pretty darned good job of making the leap into the 21st century. (If you want to see the strengths and weaknesses of the City’s content management system for yourself, you can look at what the library’s done with their part of it.) This could be a very good solution, and both Lynne and Al were more than open to the idea; in fact after I brought it up Lynne said, “Funny you should mention that…. we were just talking about it this a few days ago.” But apparently it hasn’t come to anything – that conversation took place several months ago.

There are only a handful of people letting the City know that they want, expect, need more information on the City website, and those people are mostly named Griff Wigley. But if we can get some specific feedback here about what information and/or services would be necessary and/or helpful to have online, maybe we can encourage the City to finally take action on this long-overdue item. It needn’t be a big thing that would bog down in process – it’s a purely administrative decision.

Come on, people, let’s hear it! (Please?)

13 thoughts on “Why Can’t the City Get a Real Webmaster?”

  1. Whew Tracy:

    Feel better now?

    Of course, I agree with you. I have often suggested to anyone who would listen that information gathering dust on a shelf can be turned into something of value merely by making available to citizens on the web.

    Maybe you’re right and the city needs a webmaster. Frankly, I’d be pretty happy if all of the staff members had the ability/authority to cut and paste a document onto the website.

    To be honest, the most frequent complaint that I hear about the city’s website is that it’s “so hard to find anything”. Often I’m asked by a citizen to send him or her a link to a particular section or document just because I’m a little more familiar with the municipal electronic jungle.

    However, we must at least recognize that it was only about a year ago that Griff was complaining that you couldn’t even access that night’s Council agenda on the website. They’ve at least got that going on now.

    Building on that success might be a way to start. Agendas, minutes, and staff reports for boards and commissions might be the next frontier. A library of many years worth of consultants report might be of interest too.

    I know that the Retail Support Strategies Task Force would like the city’s programs to be more vigorously promoted. Maybe there could be a little pop-up with something like “Find Out More About Our Master Development Fund”.

    And someday, maybe, we could have an on-line debate of the Leftover 8, with citizens offering their opinions to the Mayor, Council and Staff on whether or not they’d like the topic of potential violations of the Open Meeting Law further explored.

    Oh, but then you, me and Griff would be out of a “job” and we’d have to join our technical and legal staff in Dundas.

    Just my thoughts,

    Ross

  2. I am surprised, Tracy, that with all the years you’ve spent , either involved with or on the periphery of city business, that YOU are surprised.

    This has been my biggest general complaint with the”city”, Lo! these many years; they just don’t get it that the “city” IS the people! The support staff at city hall gets it; have you ever met more helpful, friendly people, mostly women, at the support staff level? I think they are excellent.

    But council, and administration….. they seem to think it’s all about them. As I have said far too often: City Halls don’t spring up, unbidden, from cornfields! And it is only when a great big persistent hoo-ha occurs, that some action starts to take place.

    So, hopefully, if you can get a LOT of people to say, this is how WE want YOU to spend some of OUR tax money………..you might get a webmaster, and a user friendly city website.

  3. Former Northfielder Mike Bollinger, of Livefront, the company that did the city’s website, was in the Blue Monday this week. We chatted briefly. He said he’s in Northfield about once/week these days, evidently doing work for other area clients.

    Their page on the city’s website says:

    The City of Northfield needed a new web site that would keep their stakeholders informed in a way that better reflected the value-add and sheer beauty of the Northfield community. But they also understood the enourmous undertaking of keeping a 200+ page website updated. To this end, we built Northfield a site that helped manage itself through easy admin interfaces that allowed content (like meeting minutes, calendar items, projects, news items, alerts, etc) to be uploaded with only a few clicks.

    City Councillor Scott Davis is quoted:

    The new website not only looks great, but will save city staff an incredible amount of time!

    Tracy, could you ask Mike and Scott to comment on the problems? It seems to me that the whole $85K site was built on the premise that non-technical staff would be able to keep it updated WITHOUT a full-time webmaster.

  4. Tracy:

    To your rant I’ll add:

    I was not only surprised, but irritated when I checked earlier this week to see what kind of preparatory materials would be available prior to the Comp Plan meeting. How difficult would it be for someone to put up the posters and maps arrayed around the Armory so that lurkers like me could give them some thought before going to the meeting? How hard would it be for there to be a way people can comment on them on line? (Even the First UCC Northfield makes it possible for members to complete a congregational survey on line instead of on paper – and that site is managed by a volunteer.)

    Not only is the city’s site the public face presented to the outside world, it should be a useful tool for those of us who live here. Several years before the city contracted with Lifefront, there was a sort of charette, inspired, if I recall, by the NDDC, to make suggestions to the city for the creation of the site. Heaven knows what happened to the results of that effort. They are not apparent in the city’s site. While I understand Livefront’s goal of user-friendliness, they put unjustified faith in the capacity of the city staff. (I won’t comment here on my disappointment on the visual aspect of the site . . .or how it compares with those of other cities)

  5. Speaking as a sort of luddite (really, ignore the something like 10GHz of processor cores within 3′ of me!) I’d just like to point out that the thing I like most is accessible, fast, pages. Multimedia and a dollar six will get you a bag of chips, but a complete, searchable, plain HTML listing of local ordinances would be awesome!

    You know, what the City really needs is some kind of labor pool of young, computer-savvy, people with occasional free time. If only we had some way of attracting college-age kids to the area!

  6. It seems to me that the whole $85K site was built on the premise that non-technical staff would be able to keep it updated WITHOUT a full-time webmaster.

    Griff, even if the system was built for non-techies to manage, those non-techies clearly aren’t updating it. Nothing else brings the consistency and reliability of a full-time webmaster. I completely agree with Tracy that this is necessary.

    I do have two complaints about the site, though, other than its lack of updates:

    It sort of feels like you’re browsing a database more than you are perusing a website. See the “Filter Meetings List” form here. I’m a web geek, and I’m intimidated by that thing.
    Everything’s uploaded in PDFs! See that same link. It really hurts the browsability of the site. Getting PDF information in standard HTML is a good example of something too technical for someone with another primary job, but just right for a full-on webmaster.

  7. A webmaster would be a great idea. There are many cities with very, very attractive and functional websites that could serve as models for modifying Northfield’s site. Those cities also would have staff costs and procedures, so this shouldn’t require re-inventing the wheel.

  8. If Livefront was supposed to make this website workable for non-tech staff, why didn’t they provide proper training? And if they did provide proper training, what happened to that? For that amount of money, I think questions need to be answered.

  9. Unless “the Boss” is watching, maintaining information on the web is “overhead” to city staff’s real job of being the city staff. If they are not being held to account for keeping information current (like agenda’s for meetings online) then that becomes a very low priority (read, “someday”).

    As for Sean’s comment about PDFs, I must de-cloak here and announce that I (a relatively techie male) am a complete Luddite about anything more severe than HTML 3.0. If I wanted flicker, flash and sizzle I’d buy an old boob tube, plug it it, then shoot it with a pistol (ala, Elvis). Especially on a government site, content (text and searchability) should rule over formatting, and PDFs should be ruled out of bounds. I KNOW the argument, PDFs are less editable. As long as the city maintains the originals in paper form, no-one is going to edit content from the web and win a lawsuit using that edited form to claim they had followed the rules. And a small note stating:

    Online HTML versions of of city codes are not definitive and are provided as an overview. Visit city hall for definitive hardcopy or see the PDF (link below).

    should suffice.

  10. On the city’s website and at the bottom of every e-mail received from city hall is the “motto”: Striving for excellence; committed to service.

    Can they honestly apply this to their own website?

  11. We received the following email yesterday from Colin McLain, the CIty’s Economic Development Dept intern:

    Colin the EDA intern here. Nicely timed post on the city website. I’ve spent the last 5 weeks gathering materials, writing copy, and reorganizing at least the business portion of the city’s website. We’re hoping to get everything completed and uploaded by the end of next week. Since we haven’t yet made a report to the EDA board I can’t reveal what all we’re doing but I’ll make sure to give you three (and northfield.org of course) a heads up when everything is ready. Hope that’s enough rope.

    The only thing actually up is new version of P&Z forms and commerical building forms which can be filled out electronically. Would be licenses too but we had an error on the upload.

    they can be found here (easier to access locations are on the way)
    http://ci.northfield.mn.us/cityservices/licensesandpermits/commercialbuilding
    http://ci.northfield.mn.us/cityservices/licensesandpermits/planningzoningpermits

    enjoy

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