Investor’s Business Daily
Municipal Web Sites Streamline Business And Ease City Living
July 21, 2004
By Sheila Riley
The Internet is helping city governments run more smoothly — tackling everything from parking ticket payments to corruption problems.
New York’s official Web site, nyc.gov, is a case in point. It excels at the three main objectives of a municipal Web site: getting information to citizens, allowing them to do business with the city and making government more transparent.
“It’s the best example,” said Tiffany Shlain, founder and director of the Webby Awards, the Academy Awards of the Internet. “They really use it as an organic working interactive tool for the citizens and the government.”
Jonathan Werbell, spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is quick to agree. The site’s best feature is “My Neighborhood,” he says.
Users can plug in an address and find out everything from pothole complaints and street-cleanliness rankings to types of crimes and numbers of certified teachers at neighborhood schools.
“There’s an amazing number of statistics right there at their fingertips, and people love to use it,” Werbell said.
The New York site publicizes programs the city’s 8 million residents might otherwise not know about — such as free concerts in city parks and summer-school vision testing for third-graders.
City photos can be purchased online. And the mayor’s press conferences and city council meetings are available in real time.
The most-requested item, though, is the option to bid on city contracts.
That’s a good thing, according to Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit Internet public policy group in Washington, D.C.
“Procurement and bidding on city contracts is very paperwork-intensive and tends to be the major source of corruption in a city,” said Schwartz. “The goal is to cut down on corruption through transparency, so people know what the process is.”
Although there are other examples of first-rate municipal Web sites, there also are lots of uninspiring ones.
“Sometimes elected officials use the city’s official Web sites as personal brochures,” Schwartz said. “In some cases, the goal is to put up the mayor’s picture and biography and not focus on services. That’s a real shame.”
Some of the best municipal Web sites are outside the United States, Schwartz says. Bologna, Italy, and Brisbane, Australia, are examples.
Cities often have the most to gain from effective Web sites. That’s because they do much of the nuts-and-bolts work, while federal sites mostly provide information, Schwartz says.
“The reason that it’s interesting to focus on the cities is that we talk a lot about e-government, but most of the direct services are at the local level,” Schwartz said.
In providing those services, cities need to keep in mind that everyone needs access, says David Vossbrink, spokesman for San Jose, Calif., Mayor Ron Gonzales.
“We can always do a better job of making the site accessible to the full range of the community,” he said.
In San Jose’s case, that means getting health and safety information online in Spanish and Vietnamese as well as English, Vossbrink says.
Some of the best parts of the site, sanjoseca.gov, are an e-library research and transaction feature and a flight tracker for the San Jose International Airport, he says.
It also allows the city’s 926,000 residents to apply for certain building permits — those that don’t require much review, such as roofing permits, according to Vossbrink.
And for the truly dedicated, it has the city’s 1,000-page budget as a PDF file.
“That’s something that took a little time to post,” he said.
The entire city code also is online.
“If you want to look up barking dogs, you can look up barking dogs,” Vossbrink said. “We’re not unique in that by any means, but it’s certainly a valuable service.”
Making life easier for new business is a clear goal of some city sites.
San Francisco, for example, links from its site, sfgov.org, to an interactive mapping program for potential businesses to identify retail and commercial buildings and locations.
Users can put together demographic and “competition and synergy” reports that show what businesses a neighborhood already has and whether they might harm or help a new enterprise coming in.
Government Web sites in general have a built-in advantage, says Jeff Cole, director of a media policy research center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Web sites overall are considered reliable by about 50% of those online, according to a five-year study of 2,000 U.S. users, according to Cole. But government sites get a better score — a 70% rating.
“There’s a certain natural credibility, whether deserved or not, that comes with being a government Web site,” Cole said.