Photo: Thomas S. Russo Jr., town manager, Newton, N.J./Photo courtesy of Thomas S. Russo Jr.
Two years ago when Thomas S. Russo Jr. applied to be the town manager of a small community in New Jersey, the first thing he did was go to its website. What he saw was a drab site that wasn't user-friendly and was uninviting -- like many government sites, for that matter.
"If I was frustrated as an applicant, imagine how the residents and businesses felt," said Russo, who ended up getting the job as Newton, N.J.'s (population 8,244) town manager. "The website is often the first impression people get from the town."
Russo took that sense of frustration and made it a priority to create a new site that not only informs residents, but aims to attract potential staff, residents businesses and their ensuing tax dollars.
With the support of the Newton town council and then-mayor Joe Ricciardo, Russo in April 2009 started the process of creating an inviting, interactive, user-friendly town website, which went live in September 2009 -- only five months later. It features social media tools -- Facebook and Twitter pages and even Russo's own "Town Manager's Blog" -- and has more accessible tabs and links.
"Aesthetically it's a totally different revamp -- it's easy on the eyes and easy to find information," Russo said, pointing out the attractive new fonts, colors and images. "We've taken advantage of the social media craze everyone's in."
The site and blog were recently featured at a "Social Media Primer for the Public Sector" seminar, attended by government and nonprofit officials across New Jersey. Russo, who has created websites personally and professionally, said he took the approach of looking at the project from a customer standpoint and asked himself, "What makes me go to other websites, what attracts me to them?"
One of the first steps toward creating such a site was choosing a firm to design, develop and maintain it. CivicPlus, a municipal Web design firm, was chosen from 13 bidders as part of the RFP process, according to a Newton press release. The cost to the town was $14,000 for the initial site creation and $250 every month for maintenance, Russo said.
Russo took the customer outlook and applied it to the town's site, which "a lot of towns don't do," he said. But the devil is in the details, which included determining just what information needed to be online and how to best organize that data.
"We really started from scratch," he said. Before uploaded the files, a site map was created which meant a lot of drawing of images, links and content. Then it had to be decided who would have access to update the site.
"You break it down into its smallest pieces so it doesn't overwhelm you," he said. "You create a tree of information where the branches are the different pages off the main home page."
Once the main elements were in place, Russo made sure the site included features to keep people returning to the site frequently. Such features, on top of the town's Twitter and Facebook pages, include a "Request Tracker" and "Emergency Alert" button.
The request tracker feature allows residents to submit 311-related concerns online instead of going to town hall or phoning it in. And the emergency alert feature notifies citizens of emergency situations or road closures, by appearing red - normally the link is blue.
Newton has also added RSS feeds and a "Notify Me" feature, which allows visitors to subscribe to email lists including town manager updates, town news announcements, job postings and bid opportunities, according to
the press release. "You've got to make the site interesting, the information timely and accurate," Russo said.
Russo offered advice for other agencies considering recreating or updating their sites. First, remember that people don't want to spend all day surfing the Net for information, so make that information easy to access. "People have a finite time to spend on the computer, so give them the information they're looking for," Russo said.
Second, embrace change and innovation. The younger generations go to the Web for information, and if it's not readily available, you risk losing them as potential customers, volunteers, business owners or residents, Russo said.
"The water is fine, people should jump in," Russo said. "Social media and websites that are functional should be the norm for government, not the exception.
"And it's a very inexpensive way to communicate with tens of thousands of people."