Websites for towns and villages need significant upgrades to improve transparency
I was recently involved in a work-related project that included updating media contact information for various town and village officials across central New York.
As with many things these days, when I needed to find information on mayors, town board members and village trustees across the region, I turned to Google ― hoping to use local governments’ home websites as a starting point.
Since I’ve had a lot of experience in this sort of thing as a journalist, I expected to find a lot of problems.
I didn’t expect to find a fiasco.
Various websites for towns and villages had limited or no contact information for important elected officials or their offices. Some of them listed phone numbers that had been disconnected. Others had email addresses that didn’t work. More than one site had working phone numbers and email addresses, but they belonged to elected officials who were no longer in office ― some hadn’t been for years.
One clerk told me I could find numbers and emails for each village trustee on their website. However, all the trustees had the same phone number underneath their names ― which was the one I had just used to contact the clerk. They also had the same email address, which was directed, again, to the clerk.
Aside from contact information inconsistencies, I’d dare say almost all of the sites had some sort of major flaw ― whether it be broken links, bad navigational tools, unexciting design templates similar to ones I used in middle school, no or long-outdated meeting minutes and agendas, or super old news items and announcements.
For whatever reason, the digital age of instant information and easy communication that has transformed the world over the last ten years has yet to find its way to city hall.
It’s a problem that goes far beyond central New York. According to a December 2014 online survey of 334 local governments, only 34 percent of respondents rated their respective websites as “highly effective,” according to Vision Internet, a technology firm that specializes in government website development.
In a 2014 report from New York’s Empire Center, 85 percent of the websites for the state’s 500 largest counties, municipalities and school districts failed to earn a passing grade for transparency in the center’s first annual SeeThroughNY Website Report Card. Websites for towns received a 79 percent failure rate and those for villages received a 93 percent failure rate.
A further look into individual categories found that information about officials’ contacts received a 65 percent failure rate, public meetings got 21 percent, public information got 81 percent, budgets got 37 percent, financial reports got 79 percent, contracts got 99 percent, taxes and fees got 36 percent, facilities and services got 37 percent, expenditures got 48 percent and ease of navigation got 72 percent.
The Empire Center released a progress report in 2016 showing some improvement, but the vast majority of website performances still leave much to be desired.
Evidently, local governments are not taking advantage of the enormous benefits that the internet ― when used properly ― can bring to communities. Indeed, just like more people are turning to the internet for news, entertainment, shopping and many other things, they are doing the same when it comes to civic engagement ― both directly and indirectly. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that 34 percent of American adults at the time had recently contacted a government official or spoke out in a public forum via online methods.
Just as news, retail and Netflix have adapted their ways to fit the modern era, local governments should be doing the same. After all, in an age where we have apps that can tell you in a pirate voice where you parked your car in a parking lot, we should be able to find out what goes on in the village we live in without much difficulty.
There are some who are taking appropriate actions to get their online presence up to acceptable levels, and even going beyond that. In 2016, Texas passed a law requiring large school districts, cities and counties to record audio and video of board, city council and commissioner meetings and then post them on the internet. Starting last month, the Syracuse Common Council began live-streaming their meetings, something Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration outlined as a priority earlier this year.
That kind of effort should be encouraged and watched closely by other municipalities who need their services upgraded. They are the ones who need to take the lead on this problem. One of the greatest responsibilities of government is to provide citizens with the accessibility and information they need on issues surrounding their hometown. Informed citizens make better governments and better governments make better communities.
After all, it’s on a local level where the most people can make the most difference. A strong online presence would make that concept more possible than ever.
Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at http://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88