Just 20 years ago, we wrote an article that called the fact that “at least ten states have begun to post legislative or consumer information on the Internet” a “dramatic development.” Today, even the tiniest communities -- like Union, Ct., which boasts a population of less than 1,000 -- are expected to have their own websites.
But even with all these open electronic doors, users who walk through can be easily disappointed and misinformed.
Look at Albuquerque, N.M. Last year, the city's auditor reviewed 594 pages of its website. The auditor praised the city for adhering to best practices, but it still found hundreds of flaws, including 145 broken links, 76 pages with outdated content and another 20 with wrong information. Contact information was provided for employees who didn’t work there anymore. The link to forms and permits led to a list of frequently asked questions. A map that was supposed to show directions to a community center navigated somewhere else.
These may seem like trivial problems to some, but they contribute to the lack of confidence that people have in government's ability; make it harder for citizens to get what they need; and force employees to spend time on things that the public could have done themselves online.
It’s not the technology that’s the problem -- it's the people managing it.
Though government websites have become one of the chief ways of communication, their upkeep is rarely a priority for any one person and often on the bottom of employees' to-do lists. In Albuquerque, for example, managing online content falls to 150 experts in different departments.
Based on personal experiences as well as conversations with government researchers, these are five of the biggest problems with dot-govs.
There's good software available to weed out broken links on websites, yet it doesn’t appear to be used on many government sites. For example, Rhode Island’s House Fiscal Office offers a link to the state’s budget office. That’s a pretty important place. But the link was broken in early May -- and as this went to press.
We recently heard from an Alexandria, Va., resident who used the communities’ so-called “call, click, connect” feature in March 2015 to get help repairing broken playground equipment near his home. He received an email back the same day. Sounds good, but (of course there's a but) the email was an automated out-of-office message -- from the year before.
Empty meeting minutes
A great way to find out what’s going on in government is to check out the minutes for legislative, board, commission or task force meetings. But months often pass before meeting minutes are posted, and sometimes, they're more like seconds than minutes. After a Texas House committee's three and a half hour meeting on jail management, for example, the minutes amounted to little more than a few meager summary paragraphs.
Poor data presentation
Many researchers are aggravated by the format of data on government websites. Sometimes it’s presented in PDF style, which makes it near impossible to manipulate and assess. In other cases, it only permits individual queries, as in Alabama’s open checkbook. That's fine for people searching for one thing, but it squashes researchers' ability to download and analyze the full data set. Joe Adams, the research coordinator at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), dubs these incomplete snapshots of data as “peek a boo” or “data burlesque” sites.
The biggest frustration for many isn't the problems with information but the lack of some. Ryan Hankins, the new director of PARCA, put it well: “Technology only improves disclosure if there is an existing willingness to disclose.”