This article was written by Tess Gauthier, Project Manager at the Snelling Center for Government.
The Snelling Center for Government has created and redeveloped a total of 19 municipal websites through the Vermont Digital Economy Project. Recent changes in the state’s Open Meeting Law, which is intended to promote participation in government and advance public opportunities to participate in government, now require that towns with websites must:
- Post meeting agendas within 48 hours of a regularly held meeting, and;
- Within 24 hours of a special meeting; and
- That minutes are posted on a town’s website within 5 days of the meeting.
Based on our experience, towns that we’ve worked with are in good shape to embrace the new regulations, but we know that many towns are still struggling to integrate their websites as part of the town’s operations.
In a recent article, we shared five tips for creating a dynamic municipal website. Our last tip was about the importance of posting meeting minutes, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Our experience has taught us that there are several steps that governments can take to help make website maintenance, along with adherence to the new changes in the Open Meeting Law, much easier:
1. Choose a Content Management System (CMS) that is easy to use and widely understood.
Our experience has shown that some municipalities are using either outdated or proprietary Content Management Systems where a webmaster holds the key to the site, or websites with no CMS at all, where everything must be updated manually and either coded directly or created through a program like Dreamweaver. This can make it much more difficult to upload meeting minutes.
On the other hand, with an easy to understand and widely used CMS, uploading meeting minutes and agendas should be seamless. The Vermont Digital Economy Project template is built on a CMS called WordPress, and with training we find that towns that we’ve worked with are updating sites regularly and are well-positioned to embrace the changes regarding websites in the Open Meeting Law.
To put this in perspective, a town may choose to use Chevy for its fleet of trucks because they are a well-known brand for trucks, and local mechanics can repair them. The same principle can be applied to a website’s Content Management System. Choosing a CMS that is widely known will ensure that towns can get the support they need if a technical question arises or institutional knowledge is lost when there is staff turnover. Examples of commonly used Content Management Systems are WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal.
2. Allocate the resources needed to maintain your website.
The integrity of a municipal website is undermined when resources are not being directed to its development, ongoing maintenance, or support. Websites are a critical piece of town infrastructure, and they need to be maintained just like roads, bridges, and town greens. Infrastructure maintenance works when resources are budgeted in advance. If you do not have a line item in your town budget for a website, start small and build up. The model of building a website and never updating it may have worked in the past, but increasingly citizens and visitors expect government websites to be useful tools for their interaction with your town. This expectation will only continue to grow.
An adequately resourced website, supported by town budget and town officials, will build the foundation for towns to promote and advance public opportunities to participate in government. When resourced adequately, municipal websites are a powerful tool to promote economic development and communicate with visitors in a way that they are accustomed to. When properly trained, many town officials and administrators are surprised to find that updating the website can take as little as 20 minutes a week.
Using volunteers to develop, manage, and carry out critical functions of the website such as updating meeting minutes undermines the credibility of a government website. Although many Vermont towns have done this in the past, a town website will remain a valuable resource only when we can create a culture where our town officials are supported in their roles as website administrators and content contributors. We don’t rely on volunteers to carry out critical functions in our business operations, and we shouldn’t rely on this practice in maintaining town infrastructure. If you must rely on volunteers, make sure they are well-trained and have a clear understanding of what is expected in regard to timing with the Open Meeting Law.
3. Lay out clear operational procedures.
Have a plan in place that outlines the roles and responsibilities of website administrators. Regardless of a town’s size, it needs to be clear from an operational standpoint who is responsible for what piece of the website. The most commonly identified tasks in towns are as follows: Upload Agendas, Upload Meeting Minutes (unapproved and approved), Update Calendar and Updated News/Announcements.
Your plan can be as simple as assigning a name next to a task or as complex as creating a work flow diagram that shows what committee or board chair is responsible for sending meeting agendas and minutes to whom, and when. Towns know what tasks the Highways Department employees are responsible for as well as when these tasks need to be completed, and the same emphasis should be applied to website maintenance. Roles and responsibilities that are clearly outlined and understood help towns integrate websites into their operations, making them more effective.
In situations where town offices are staffed by one person and only open part time, it is important for leaders in that town to make sure that another person, such as a Selectboard member, is trained on very basic websites tasks, such as updating meeting minutes. Otherwise, the town could be vulnerable during an emergency. If that one trained website admin is affected by the emergency, it leaves a key resource for communicating what to do stagnant, and the town vulnerable.
4. Post all minutes and agendas as PDFs.
Posting meeting minutes and agendas in a Word document is not advised because a Word document can be downloaded from a town’s website and then altered. It is much more difficult to alter a PDF, so towns should make sure to post PDFs only, unless they are uploading the minutes directly onto a web page.
If towns are unsure about how to create a PDF or generally do not understand what converting to PDF means, we will provide a free consultation on how to do this. Call or email Tess Gauthier at the Snelling Center for Government to schedule a time: 802-777-4638 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Websites can be powerful tools for towns to improve communications with their citizens and allow citizens to get quick answers to easy questions (such as when the town offices are open or which form they need to download for a dog license). These websites are also often among the first search results for a town’s name, and so they act as banners, advertising the town to people interested in visiting, or even moving to the area.
When resourced and integrated into a town’s operations, government websites can serve as a critical platform to engage citizens, promote participation in government, and advance public opportunities to participate in government. But, just like anything else, they need a little help to stay that way.