Virtual Village Square

What does it take to transform a lackluster municipal Web site into a vibrant community meeting place?

by / September 30, 2005
What if a city put up a Web site and nobody came?

In early 2003, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, faced precisely that problem. From 2001 to 2004, the city operated a Web site that drew only 600 visitors a month -- a paltry showing in a city of 50,000.

"We just had basic departmental information [on the Web site]," said John Konich, manager of the city's Information Systems Department, in identifying a large reason people stayed away in droves. "We had a presence, but not a lot of content."

This year, as Cuyahoga Falls prepared to launch a series of e-government services, the city's Web site became a much hotter destination.

"From January 2004 through March 2005 we had 240,000 visitors. We were averaging 16,000 a month," Konich said.

Traffic on the city's Web site soared, because in 2003, city officials, led by Mayor Don Robart, made it their business to enrich the site with compelling information and services.

"We wanted people to start coming to our Web site more because we had plans to have an e-government portal," Konich said. "It would be hard to put something like that up and get any kind of activity on it if people didn't even know we had a Web site."

Something slightly different happened on the way: Cuyahoga Falls officials say its Web site has evolved into a virtual community gathering spot.

Only One Place to Go
Residents can find details on concerts, festivals and other local events; renew memberships to municipal recreation facilities; follow the progress of major construction projects; and learn about neighborhood planning initiatives. They've also used it to share ideas for improving their schools. Soon they'll be able to go online to register complaints about potholes and other nuisances, and then track whether the city is attending to them.

Things started changing in 2003, when members of the Information Systems Department started marketing the Web site internally. At every opportunity, Konich reminded city officials that every piece of literature the city published should mention the site. They also started soliciting Web site content from other departments, Konich said, and Mayor Robart helped promote the process.

"Through his direction, and our department pestering these departments, we were able to generate more and more content," Konich said.

The effort received a big boost when Cuyahoga Falls developed a content management system in March 2004, said John Hill, the city's webmaster. "It allows each department to update their information without having to send us e-mail or write anything," Hill said, keeping the site dynamic and up to date.

One of the first features to draw people to the site was information, complete with videos, about two major construction projects: a $26 million fitness facility, and a $5 million Falls River Square Festival and Special Events pavilion.

"People are really attracted to those," said Hill. "They want to know how their money's being spent, what services are going to be available after the project's complete."

A newer draw is a calendar of events scheduled at the now-completed Falls River Square and other city venues.

In late 2004 and early 2005, Cuyahoga Falls introduced its first two e-government services. One is a printable form residents can use to calculate their city income taxes and file by mail. A second service allows users to renew membership in residents-only recreational facilities.

Cuyahoga Falls hasn't extended the online community concept so far as to replace live forums, such as its neighborhood "charrettes," in which community planners meet with residents to gather ideas about redevelopment.

"I would hate to see the Web take over that personal interaction," Hill said. The city does use the site, however, to post information about upcoming charrettes and later report on the results.

At one time, the city provided online discussions as part of its Keep Improving District Schools program. Staff set up a blog, where people could post observations and suggestions about city schools, Hill said. In terms of numbers, the forum was a hit, but there were problems.

"We had to shut it off because it was getting out of hand," Hill said.

Konich noted that it was a scary success. "There was bickering between people, slamming each other," he said.

Before Cuyahoga Falls can try another forum of this sort, officials must figure out an efficient way to keep it under control without assigning a full-time moderator, he said.

Now that residents have discovered the city's Web site, Konich said he expected the new e-government services to draw an enthusiastic response. Services still slated for launch in 2005 include online utility bill pay, recreation program and facility rental registration, and city income tax filing and payment. Later, the city plans to add services for building permits, planning and zoning, code enforcement, police records and a complaint tracking system.

Cuyahoga Falls worked with IBM to develop its e-government portal and based it on IBM's eServer i5 550 technology. Todd Ramsey, general manager of IBM Global Government, said that in the future, many local governments will develop portals that, like Cuyahoga Falls' portal, serve as important information sources and gathering spots for their communities. Few government Web sites have evolved that far, he added.

From Integration to Excitement
Many governments are still determining how to make their online services attractive and easy to use, Ramsey said. Until they do, government portals won't spark excitement.

"Just putting in the pipes doesn't solve the problem," Ramsey said. "You have to figure out how you become a catalyst for making those pipes useful."

Along with Cuyahoga Falls, Cornwall, Ontario, built a Web portal some years back designed to boost local Internet usage, Ramsey said. Along with links to local and provincial government organizations, the site offered information on schools and local businesses, including private-sector job listings. The city also created chat rooms and forums where members of local interest groups could exchange ideas.

"What that did was dramatically increase the active use of the Internet from 5 percent to 70 or 75 percent within a year and a half, because they brought something of value to the people," Ramsey said. Unfortunately the city ran out of funding to support these community-building activities. "They still have a portal, but it's not nearly as creative as the original one," he said.

If few cities have figured out how to turn their Web sites into community hubs, it might be because of the high costs involved, said Konich. Cuyahoga Falls avoided that pitfall by sticking with its existing IBM back-end platform, adding front-end technology to pull data out of databases and present it to the public, he said.

The city was lucky the vendors of its back-end applications had already created versions of their software for the Internet, Hill said. "We were able to bring this on in a cost-effective manner. That's a lot easier than [starting] from square one."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer