Where bureaucracy and internet collide
July 11, 2008 4:59 AM   Subscribe

Does the city you live in have a great website? What (specifically) makes it great?

I'd like to revisit (and hopefully expand on) a similar question from 2006. While the preceding answers were acceptable, I'm hoping people will go into more specific details about what content or features makes their local city website joyfully useful.

As a citizen, I dont find myself going to the city website for much of anything. Its not a "bad" website per se, it has baseline functionality (pay bills, search library, find parks,etc) but its also disappointingly "utilitarian". There isnt anything "drawing me in". I'm hoping Ask.Mefi responses will include examples like:

"My local city website is drop-dead gorgeous!" (link)

"Almost all city websites have basic info w/x/y,etc , but my city has THIS" (link)

Active citizen forums?
real-time/live chat ?
unique (unexpected) e-services?
single sign-on to access all e-services?
easy navigation?
incentives for citizen involvement?
incentives for youth involvement?
A vibe that they actually "get" the web (concept)?

I realize its government and my expectations may be WAY to high, but (without saying to much) I'm hoping to become involved in making my local city website better - so seeing examples of how its "done right" might help me generate (or steal) ideas. :)
posted by jmnugent to Law & Government (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know that I can my city's website is awesome, but it's been useful for things like garbage pickup schedule, and local events such as the fireworks on the 4th. Marquette, MI
posted by All.star at 5:09 AM on July 11, 2008

It doesn't need to be great, it doesn't need to be good, I would settle for mediocrity: updated regularly with relevant content (not just guff about how great the council/ councillors is/are). Not being full of broken links and being accessible in all browsers is also a top tip. Hardly rocket science, but you'd be surprised how useless these sites can be.

Witness: EPIC FAIL
posted by munchbunch at 5:20 AM on July 11, 2008

Highland Park, NJ. It's not 'amazing', but the design is pleasing enough and it has what I'd need out of my town's website.
posted by lullaby at 5:42 AM on July 11, 2008


not an 'official' city owned site, but pretty freaking amazing. If every city had something this useful, almost all of these travel-related questions would be obsolete.
posted by meowN at 5:55 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Spent the last hour or two browsing various city websites. Do they all have to be blue? I mean seriously. I have to say I'm pretty impressed with Baltimore's website. Its has great visual impact, although I havent had time to dig in and see how functional it is.
posted by jmnugent at 6:29 AM on July 11, 2008

FYI... that Baltimore website you linked too is made by the B-more Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. The official city website is here.
posted by jk252b at 6:38 AM on July 11, 2008

Lawrence.com is the best website for a place I've lived (Lawrence, KS). More geared towards entertainment, but it is just very useful and well organized.
posted by mgogol at 6:57 AM on July 11, 2008

I've always appreciated the web site for the city of Buenos Aires. (Hmm... and yes it is now blue-ish. Under the former administration it was orange.)

There's quite a bit you can do online in terms of filing complaints, looking up information, etc. But it also goes several steps beyond just the dry government stuff to really direct you to things happening in the city. And there are things to browse such as blogs, online photo exhibits, etc.

It's not perfect, but it's by far the best for any city I've ever lived in.
posted by veggieboy at 6:58 AM on July 11, 2008

I work for a local government website. Is our site great? No, probably not. But it *is* always up-to-date, accurate, accessible and visible in ANY browser, and ADA compliant.

Civic web stuff is such a different beast, to me, than private/corporate web stuff. You are doing everything on the cheap (at least we are), and it has to be all things to all people. The taxpayers are paying for it, so how do you justify spending X amount of your budget on efforts that will, at best, be used by a fraction of the people who use the website, which is a teeny-tiny fraction of the population at large? That's not a rhetorical question - it's a challenge we face here all the time. And, generally speaking, people expect governement entities to be a bit stodgy. Depending on your city you may be able to let your hair down a bit, but it might be a hard sell.

I think comprehensive and up-to-date content is the most important thing. The more up-to-date the better. A blog, or even better a blog + Twitter seems like you it could be useful/entertaining/cool so long as you keep it fresh. Nothing looks crappier than dusty old updates. Except maybe dead forums, or dead forums filled with vi4gr@ spam, so whatever you do make sure you can keep up with it.

You mention single sign-on for all e-services. In my experience, which is admittedly not vast, trying to get disparate departments to get together on ANYTHING is nearly impossible. It is ingrained in people to protect their budgetary 'turf' and any unification measure by design will take away power. Power is money. That makes it sound evil, but I don't think that is the case - it's just a hard reality that any civic department must move extremely slowly and carefully, yet deal with the fact that its administration, the elected/appointed officials, likely as not will be changing soon, and any even slightly controversial effort could be rescinded.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:59 AM on July 11, 2008

I recently got a red-light ticket in Chicago. I went searching the internet trying to find a way to get out of it. Chicago's website came up, and after inputting my information, they showed me video of my infraction. It was so cool I was (almost) happy to pay the ticket. It also showed that my idea of cutting a yellow light close was, upon review, really really wrong. I seriously blew a red light.
posted by gjc at 7:13 AM on July 11, 2008

i live in philly and work in lansdowne. i have often complained about the philadelphia website for various reasons (which i'll get into later), but when i started working in lansdowne, i was blown away by how awesome their site was in comparison, especially since they are a small town with presumably not a lot of budget.

lansdowne, pa. it's not the prettiest site, but it has tons of useful information and it's easy enough to find what i want to find.

philly on the other hand...i will give it props for being a lot better now than it was 6 years ago, but still. well, actually upon further review, it's pretty decent right now. i guess my problem is with the departmental/office pages of the main site. they're often disorganized, out of date (last updated april 06 or something) and ugly. i'm not saying they have to win design awards, but at least lay the page out well.

things i would like to see: googlemap integration where appropriate, a more useful search
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:33 AM on July 11, 2008

The Baltimore City government website is atrocious. The front page looks good, but try to find some useful information, like trash pickups or pay your parking ticket.
posted by electroboy at 8:01 AM on July 11, 2008

Echoing dirtdirt, and more, I think that there are so many places online for forums and chat that it's unlikely that a city government, with a limited budget and limited resources, would want to develop that.

My city's web site is truly ugly and disorganized, which is a shame because the design they had until last year was actually quite pretty. Having said that, I have access there to things like a GIS service that shows things like capital improvement projects and crime statistics plotted on a map. To me, that's really great because I get useful information specific to my neighborhood. For me, the functionality is more important than the "coolness" factor.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:02 AM on July 11, 2008

I think Somerville, MA has a nice site. They do a lot of best practices (phone number and common links on the front page, forms all in one place) and they've also got something called Intelligov that's integrated with the 311 system and you can use it to submit all kinds of crazy requests (dead animal removal, report bed bugs, report illegal parking, etc.)
posted by phoenixy at 9:47 AM on July 11, 2008

Heck, I'll throw my city, St Petersburg, Florida into the mix.
As mentioned above, it is the requisite blue, but I really like the drop down boxes on the left that kind of let you get down to business, so to speak.

Wanna pay a parking ticket? Here ya go!
Wanna survive that next hurricane that will submerge us all under 10 feet of water? Presto!
posted by willmize at 9:51 AM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: I understand what dirtdirt is saying... I guess I'm just hoping that I can take some of the ideas floating around my head and develop them in a way to help my cities website be better. It seems like the vast majority of municipal websites are average at best (but mostly total suck)... so in that regard it seems like it wouldnt take much to make something "stand above the crowd" so to speak. Although I think the biggest hurdles arent technological... the biggest hurdles are human-factors (most city employees mindset and approach to technology are woefully outdated and there isnt much energy or acceptance of change)

I'm hoping if I come up with some good proposals, involving free opensource software and donating my time on weekends/after-hours that I might atleast be allowed to "pilot-test" some of my ideas far enough to show evidence that they are workable and will benefit the city and its citizens. (probably the vast majority of my ideas are things to improve internal processes, but some of them will effect outward-facing parts of our website)

Thanks for all the input so far... more bad examples than good, but thats ok.. it helps me have a larger picture of what the "norm" is and helps me realistically adjust my goals.
posted by jmnugent at 10:13 AM on July 11, 2008

I like my city's because BAM all the crap you would go to the web to use is right there on the left and the news (and history) is on the front page. What more do I want from a city already wasting my tax dollars...not a fancy web site that's for sure! City of Frederick
posted by evilelvis at 10:43 AM on July 11, 2008

The Davis wiki is freakin' amazing. Makes me want to go back and visit again.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:42 PM on July 11, 2008

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