The failing grades given local government websites by the Empire Center for New York State Policy shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s tried to use them. In this Internet Age, people with computers expect that they’ll be able to find any and all information with a few keystrokes. It can be frustrating to find how little information is available from local government websites, then.
For its report, the Empire Center examined more than 500 local government and school district websites throughout New York State, and gave 427 of them failing grades. The eight Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming county websites included in the study were among those with failing grades. The study evaluated websites based on the availability of basic information — contact information, public meetings, public information, budgets, financial reports, contracts, taxes and fees, expenditures, and facilities and services — and ease of navigation. Schuyler County earned the highest grade, a B.
A failing website grade, however, should not be viewed as a sign of a failing government. As City School District Superintendent Chris Dailey said of the Empire Center report, “It’s one group’s opinion.”
Nor was it the Empire Center’s intent to denigrate the efforts of local government officials.
“The Empire Center undertook this project not to place blame on any individual local government, rather to highlight the need for advancement in how and when data and information is presented on websites,” wrote Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center, in the report. “With no real guidance for what makes a good website, the SeeThrough Government Rankings should provide a basis and a benchmark by which local governments can see how websites stack up from one municipality to the next. By implementing changes based on the results of this assessment — most, if not all of which can be achieved at little or no cost — local governments of all sizes can greatly increase the usefulness of their own websites and better connect taxpayers to the range of information to which they are entitled.”
Thus the report is intended as Genesee County Manager Jay Gsell took it — “a wake-up call.”
Today’s websites are often the responsibility of clerks or other personnel who are already overburdened with work. They seldom get training or extra time to fulfill website duties, and frankly, many members of the public are still happy to go to Town Hall to ask for a printed copy of a budget or other document. Given that, it is no wonder that governments are reluctant to spend money on websites or trained personnel to keep them updated. Nor has there been much discussion about what purpose local government websites should serve.
“Batavia fared better than most (in the Empire study),” said Batavia City Manager Jason Molino. “Most of what they reviewed is subjective. Is a site supposed to be total repository for everything and is it supposed to replace the Freedom of Information Act? That would be a massive investment to make everything accessible all the time.” He says a website should reflect the community, be more of a tourism tool, offering the chance for website visitors to “explore all that the city has to offer.”
It was the “robust” information in Schuyler County’s website that earned it the study’s highest grade, however. It included 20 years of county budgets and 10 years of audited financial statements. People do want information.
The Empire study may be most valuable as a nudge for local governments to push through a period of transition to meet the needs of a technologically savvy new generation. There’s a lot of work to be done. Decisions need to be made about what purpose a local government website should serve — and citizens need to tell officials what they want. Then it becomes a matter of finding the resources to give citizens what they want in a website. The final grade for a local government website, after, all, will come from the people it is supposed to serve.
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