This article was co-authored by Caitlin Lovegrove of the Vermont Council on Rural Development and Tess Gauthier, Project Manager at the Snelling Center for Government.
As part of the Vermont Digital Economy Project, our partners at the Snelling Center for Government have now successfully implemented new or updated websites for 15 towns across Vermont, and they plan to create another 10 by the end of the project. Through this process, we have learned that there are many more factors involved in creating a viable new website than simply updating a Content Management System or adhering to the latest design trends (although both of these elements are certainly still important!). Here are five suggestions to ensure that your town’s new municipal website is dynamic, usable, and up-to-date:
1. Remember that a municipal website is a space for citizens to get information.
When creating a site that is meant to be beneficial to a town’s citizens, it is important to invite citizens to engage in the development of the site. This does not mean that a town clerk or municipal manager will have no say in the site itself. On the contrary, it means that by gathering input from citizens, at the right times, and in the right environment, you can create a website that truly reflects the culture of the community. More citizens now expect that government websites will provide what they need, quickly and when they need it. Citizen feedback ensures that you are providing information that is relevant to your audience, and as a result, more people will trust the site and turn to it for valuable information.
For example, during Mendon’s Community Discussion, citizens of the community discussed how Mendon’s proximity to ski resorts and many hiking trails helped make it a unique location. Through this discussion, they helped to identify three themes for the town of Mendon’s site, which truly display the town’s character: “visit,” “live,” and “history.”
2. You don’t need to have a technical person on staff to have a powerful, effective site, but training is important.
Websites work best when the internal governance of the municipal websites is carried out by a town official, even if there are initially no town officials who feel comfortable taking on the role of maintaining the site. It is natural to feel a little out of your comfort zone when you begin to learn any new technology, but we have found that with adequate one-on-one training, town officials are quick to realize that updating and managing their municipal website is nowhere near as intimidating as they had originally anticipated that it would be.
This situation happened in East Montpelier, where the town had never had a site before. When we began to create our strategic plan with the town, therefore, we worked to identify who would manage the site. We ended up working with the town administrator. It was a new skillset for him, but after going through a few training sessions, he felt comfortable enough in his role to manage the site’s content and has now integrated the work into his daily duties.
At the end of the day, a municipal website is an outward representation of the municipal governance structure, so when a town needs to contact a vendor, community member, or high school student to update its site, this can tend to undermine the integrity of the government website. Having somebody from within the government updating content helps ensure that the information is trustworthy and up-to-date.
3. Get a plan in place for site maintenance from the start.
A shiny new site with outdated information may be pretty, but it is not useful. Make sure you have a plan in place for site maintenance once the new site is up. This plan can be as simple as listing the functions that need to be carried out on the website, assigning a person to that task, and agreeing upon the frequency of the task. For example, Selectboard meetings should be posted the day after each meeting, by the end of business hours. Assigning that specific role to somebody in the office helps ensure that this will happen. Having a clear management in plan in place also means that in the event of an emergency, people know who to contact to get information out to the public quickly and effectively.
4. Start with a very simple site, and work forward from there.
It is all too easy, when creating a new site, to want to add as many features as possible right away. In our template, we use a WordPress platform, through which site administrators can add plugins that allow for functionalities such as fillable forms, the ability to process payments online, and newsletter integration. Towns may want to have it all from the get-go, but these technologies can change organizational workflows, which can in some cases create complexities that can’t be sustainably managed by a town.
In one town, a clerk wanted to integrate online payments into the town’s site, but she later realized that getting a list of those payments off of the website, and processing them as paid, meant adding an extra layer of operations to her usual clerical duties. While she did end up integrating that system into her daily work schedule, it was something that became important to evaluate as we worked to complete the site.
When you start building a new site, therefore, it is important to start from the ground up. Make sure the site admins are comfortable with the basics: updating and adding content, and then, as comfort levels increase, beginning to have conversations about adding extra functionalities, one at a time. Be sure to carefully evaluate how additional features will impact the town office’s organization as a whole.
5. Meeting minutes are key.
In almost every website we have analyzed, the minutes from Selectboard and committee meetings are some of the most viewed pages. These minutes have a huge potential to engage the public. Having updated minutes demonstrates to a town’s citizens that the town is committed to citizen engagement and transparency. So, even if everything else on the site remains static, be sure to have your minutes updated in a timely manner, and make sure they are easy to find.