Practice Makes Perfect

San Carlos, Calif., has had a lot of time to make its Web site among the best.

by / July 17, 2001
On May 10, 1994, San Carlos, Calif., went live with one of the first city Web sites in the world. It contained the city seal and a short message from the mayor welcoming citizens to the Internet -- not much by todays standards. But by 1996 the site won first place in the Best of the Web award sponsored by Public Technology Inc. (PTI), the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), State Technologies Inc., the University of California at Davis and Government Technology. The site was easy to use, and it even had an online form for reporting potholes, broken streetlights, etc. In what many considered a courageous move, the city made it easy to find and called it a "complaint form."

Today, most local governments have Web sites. But a recent survey of local governments by PTI and ICMA found that two-thirds of respondents sites are less than three years old. In addition, many smaller local governments will be going online for the first time this year. As they do, theyll find the San Carlos site continues to stand as an example of continuing best practices. Recently, the sites "Visioning San Carlos" won an award from PTI for its three-dimensional modeling of proposed land developments. Assistant City Manager Brian Moura, the chief architect of the site, said the city wanted to make interactions between citizens and developers more cordial. "The developer typically has a huge investment in the property; they are paying interest and want to get going," said Moura. "The citizens question why the developer is in such a hurry, they want more information, and it can get confrontational."

Visioning San Carlos was designed to smooth these interactions, provide timely information and open the process to everyone.

Users who log on to the site click on a map of the city to pull up any of a number of proposed developments. The development appears in three dimensions, with the viewer in the center of an intersection. Moving the cursor allows the viewer to move through an "immersive panorama," from Designvis. Existing structures are in color, and the proposed development is shaded.

Changing Faces

This May, the San Carlos site underwent a facelift and structural upgrades. The single page of 1994 has grown to 600 pages. In response, the city instituted a new content management system using templates, automating such things as expiration dates for job announcements using StoryServer from Vignette. Moura said the templates separate the design from the information. Departments pull up templates and fill in the blanks. Moura said the site rebuilds once a day and time-limited items disappear automatically on the date of expiration.

Another innovation is a system of presenting important meetings on the Web and making it easy to find a specific portion of a presentation. For example, the State of the City 2001 presentation by Mayor Sally Mitchell is presented in full, with the mayors speech on video or audio depending on the users choice and connection speed. Thumbnails of the mayors slides can be enlarged with a click of the mouse. Double click and the video or audio presentation moves to that portion of the speech corresponding to the slide. So the slides act as a sort of index
and retrieval mechanism for the video presentation -- a much better alternative to fast-
forwarding and reversing. The software, from Presenter Inc., makes archived presentations available on demand.

San Carlos participated in a smart-permitting project that made permitting uniform among 10 jurisdictions in the region. In May 1999, the first phase of the Internet Permit System went live, allowing citizens to comment on development applications and to check permit status. Online parcel information was available in October 1999, along with the first phase of eMobile, a system that allows wireless access to the permit database. The program will provide the ability to apply and pay for permits.

In 2001, even the complaints department has evolved. Now, each service request is sent directly to the responsible city department for follow-up. The citizen receives a response within 48 hours, and the city gets a well-deserved reputation for responsiveness and service.

For more information, contact Brian Moura.
Wayne Hanson Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government