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For Local Governments, Digital Communications are Essential Services

A survey found municipal and county governments rely heavily on websites, social media and mobile services to connect with citizens, but struggled to make them effective.

How well do local governments connect with their residents using cutting-edge digital technologies?

That was the question at the heart of a suvey of local governments by Vision Internet, a technology firm specializing in government website development. The survey found that 77 percent of respondents rated their agency website as "essential" to their overall communications and public service strategy, while another 82 percent felt social media was "already having a signfiicant impact" on operations. Meanwhile, nearly half (49 percent) said their agency provides citizen-facing services using mobile devices.

But only 34 percent of respondents rated their agency's websites as "highly effective" today, while just 29 percent felt their local government's social media presence was highly effective. 

These are just some of the highlights from the December 2014 online survey, What's Next in Digital Communications for Local Government, of 334 municipal and county governments with populations of less than 10,000 to more than 1 million. 

"We created the survey because over the last several years there has been a dramatic shift in how local government is utilizing technology to be able to communicate," said Ashley Fruechting, director of strategic initiatives for Vision Internet.

According to Fruechting, this evolution motivated the company to assess digital communication channels and local government plans to use and invest in them during a time when budgets are beginning to grow again.  

More than 90 percent of around 330 respondents said they have a responsibility to keep pace with new technology, according to Fruechting. Many local governments are planning to invest in core technologies like content management systems and mobile government, while some governments, given challenges, say they don't have plans. 

"They see it as a priority, they see it as something that needs to be done," Fruechting explained, "but they are still sensing some cultural challenges, sensing some procurement challenges and really struggling with the prioritization of the budget as well as actually adopting the technology that they're seeing as important."

To gain more insight into these priorities and challenges, Government Technology spoke with public-sector officials in Shakopee, Minn.; Keller, Texas; and Provo City, Utah, who offered their own perspectives on digital issues at the local level.

Websites Become Dynamic

The city of Shakopee, with a population of nearly 40,000, has a website that trumps other forms of digital engagement as the main source of city news (though the local newsletter still trumps all), according to a recent municipal survey.

Located southwest of Minneapolis, Shakopee launched its website with Vision Internet about a year ago; the site replaced a static one that Shakopee hosted, according to Kristin Holtz, communications coordinator. With the new site, residents can purchase dog licenses, tailor e-notifications to receive the news they want and submit service requests to fix what's broken in the community.  

On the whole, websites are changing to include more interactive features and new, dynamic ways to conduct government business digitally, said Fruechting. 

"Websites have evolved over the last five years in terms of government really transforming them from just a giant digital file cabinet of information to seeing them as something that can really serve as an additional staff member," she said.

Five years ago, Provo decided to pull in a sprawling website. The city -- more than twice the size of Shakopee -- condensed its site from 8,000 pages to 600. Brian Nye, the city's creative director, did much of the work transforming the site to an easily-navigated store of city information, which went live a little more than a year ago.

"There's no reason why a municipal website should feel so clunky and so far behind," Nye said. The city made the site feel intuitive and easily accessible.  Following the changes, visitor "bounce time" for the site went from about five seconds to almost a minute, Nye said.   

While nearly three quarters of respondents rated their websites as "essential" to communication, nearly the same percent of respondents said that, by 2020, their sites will become "highly effective."

When comparing the usefulness of websites, social media and email, the percentage of respondents rating agency websites and social media as "highly effective" doubled in the forecast for 2020 compared to today's assessment. Estimates of email's effectiveness in that five-year timeframe stayed around the same.

"I attribute that shift to the realization that email is a singular channel and, when done well, can be incorporated into a website or other channels," Fruechting said.

The survey revealed growing opportunities for local governments that use social media. For example, last month, Shakopee tried something new on Facebook called "Ask the City," inviting residents to have a live chat with the public works superintendent regarding snow removal.  Provo City, home to two large universities, regularly uses social media, where it recently attracted 20,000 people to a local concert, and it posted a video made from the State of the City address featuring music to cater to the younger, online-viewing crowd. 

Mobility and Content Management

Provo City attracts nearly 50 percent of its visitors from mobile devices; the city went with Vision Internet in part because of its mobile platform and also content management system, Nye said. 

The survey found that 98 percent of respondents cited citizen convenience as a top benefit for providing mobile-based services. As a result, many governments are tailoring their websites to fit mobile screens. 

"As people are out on the go, that's a quick way for people to be able to engage with local governments," Fruechting said. But the use of mobile technology extends beyond convenience to providing more services with fewer resources and cutting down on phone calls. 

Nearly half of local government respondents said their agency already provides citizen-facing services via mobile devices. Of the 51 percent that do not, 24 percent plan to provide it this year, about 10 percent in two to three years and 14 percent have no plans. 

"That was surprising to me because mobile is such a fundamental part of technology today," Fruechting said.

In addition to mobile-friendly websites, content management systems rank among the top three investments for 2015 -- 49 percent of respondents' communities are investing in social media, 42 percent in content management and 35 percent in mobile government. 

As agencies are developing their second or third generation websites, putting the pieces together from a content management perspective continues to be a challenge and a place for investment. according to Fruechting.

Keller, Texas recently overcame challenges to centralizing its city website, by training about 30 new content managers on its system to keep information updated and its presentation seamless. The city motivated departmental buy-in by having each agency present their new sites in front of city administration, said Keith Macedo, director of internal services.

"If they weren't prepared, it gave them some incentive to do more and become prepared for the next meeting," he said. 

All that upfront effort means that the site is easy to use now. Keller's city management has taken the reins from the technology department to provide web and social media oversight. 

"Over the years and with the proliferation of social media, websites and communications have become less and less of a tech-driven function and more of an admin-driven function," explained Macedo. 

The Challenges of Moving Forward

Looking forward, Holtz said she wants to create an interactive community calendar for Shakopee's site and discussed the idea in a December client focus group where seven other customers shared ideas too.  

But for all the innovative ideas out there, the challenge sometimes is prioritizing them, according to Holtz. The ideas also have to be practical and useful. 

"When you're a government and you're responsible for taxpayers' money it's really important to think critically of how the technologies [will] serve the best interest of the city and the residents," Holtz said.  

Although some governments want to be mobile friendly, they face challenges in doing so, with 70 percent of survey respondents citing funding, followed by security concerns and usability issues. 

Provo City's use of online payments has given rise to security concerns regarding its cloud platform. For this reason, and because it wants to integrate more database information on its website, Provo may someday move back to hosting its own site and keeping the data within the city, Nye said. 

But the city is happy with its current vendor. "At this point, we've been comfortable with farming it out," Nye said. "Vision has been doing a lot of great things and is being really transparent." 

Local governments face other challenges, including staffing problems as well as competing priorities. For Keller, the priority is to develop its website's mobile-friendliness, but the small city struggles at times because of limited staff who wear many hats, and a foray into new technology means someone has to take on another commitment. 

"When you start a new communications tool, you need to think of it as you're going to be doing this from now on, because you're not going to be able to turn it off," he said.

Keller's next project is to go live in two months with financial transparency on its site via OpenGov.

In Provo City, four employees keep all the city's high-tech communications rolling. Still, the city has cut down on staffing and is also spending less, Nye said. But the cutbacks haven't impacted overall service delivery. About 90 percent of citizens recently gave positive feedback regarding the city's use of their tax dollars.  

Next, Provo City is considering connecting databases with dashboards, showing analytics, posting survey visuals and polling citizens to gauge their interest on hot button issues. The city, motivated by Mayor John Curtis, is continuously looking at new technology and assessing how best use it. 

"The very day we launched the new website, it was like: 'OK let's start planning the next one,'" Nye said. "[The mayor] wants us to always stay above the tech curve."