Are Small Cities Online? Content, Ranking, and Variation of U.S. Municipal Websites
Municipalities, this study asserts, could do much to improve their online presence and engage their citizens.
Mary K. Feeney, Adrian Brown
Government Information Quarterly
Volume 34, Issue 1
While information and communication technologies (ICTs) hold the potential to increase government transparency and accountability and foster civic engagement by providing access to information about government activities as well as facilitating interaction with the community, this promise has not been fully realized, especially in smaller municipalities, the authors write. They posit that "focusing solely on content without attention to features that promote transparency, security, and accessibility has implications for citizen access, satisfaction, and trust. … Therefore, websites are not only important gauges of e-government quality but also demonstrate commitment to and focus on user experiences with government."
This study draws from a content analysis of the websites of 500 small U.S. city governments from two points in time, 2010 and 2014, and evaluates them on the prevalence of five categories of ICTs: information tools, e-services, utility, transparency and civic-engagement features. The study then ranks the cities and observes how those rankings changed over the intervening four-year period. It also evaluates whether a municipality's government structure (council-manager vs. mayor-council) had an effect on the adoption of ICTs.
The authors find that, even in 2014, municipal websites still varied greatly in what they offered citizens. "For example, while around 95% of cities post their city council agenda, other cities lag behind with only around 100 city websites mentioning FOIA, about 30% posting employee directories, and 15 who do not offer a single e-service," the authors write. While many of the websites analyzed had job listings, municipal codes, agendas and contact information for the mayor, "they do not demonstrate a fully developed, active, online presence."
In addition, the research found that the municipal government structure did have an effect on the adoption of ICTs. Council-manager governments, which are more professional in nature compared to mayor-council governments, appear to value innovation to a greater extent and therefore typically implement ICTs on a broader basis. However, council-manager governments also appear to have a greater concern with efficiency and autonomy, which can lead them to be less likely to adopt ICTs "that enhance access to political processes and shared power, which may lead to inefficient, poor decisions," according to the authors.
Why this matters to practitioners:
This research indicates that there are still ample opportunities to improve government websites and thereby improve interactions with the public and increase trust. The authors suggest measures that are fairly straightforward, low-maintenance upgrades, such as adding translation widgets, "linking to FOIA information, adding employee directories, and enhancing the provision of voting information, including district maps" Smaller cities, the authors suggest, might consider contracting with an external provider or teaming up "with neighboring cities to share resources for online provision of city services and information." The ultimate goal, according to the authors, is to not only deploy these tools but to use them in ways that "will fully engage the public."