GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Small cities can meet e-service challenges
The Internet has affected not only large and small businesses, but large and small local governments as well. Businesses have been leading the way in providing round-the-clock, online customer services, and the people who appreciate the quick responses from those companies are expecting the same level of attention from their local government agencies. The federal government has responded to the growing community of Web-savvy citizens by launching a Web site (www.firstgov.gov) designed to provide seamless government services. In doing so, it has presented a challenge to local governments to manage their operations in same way.
Small to mid-sized communities, however, face challenges making the transition into information-based organizations, as few have the resources to move beyond establishing a basic Web site. A National League of Cities poll of city leaders conducted in March revealed the widespread development of city Web sites and the not-as-common development of online resident services. Of the 395 poll respondents:
– 89 percent have Web sites;
– 79 percent of the Web sites are managed and operated by municipal staff;
– 72 percent of the sites allow residents to submit requests and comments;
– 58 percent provide forms and other information to be directly downloaded;
– 31 percent allow permit completion and submission of forms and applications online; and
– 8 percent allow residents to conduct financial transactions (e.g., pay parking tickets, taxes, etc.).
The low percentage of cities that provide advanced online government services reflects the questions that small to mid-sized cities are stumbling on. For instance: Who develops the site and keeps it updated? Most cities have someone on staff to maintain the site, but are there alternatives to hiring a Web expert? What hardware, software, connection and security does the site need? What if the city invests money in the site and nobody uses it?
Aside from those questions, small to mid-sized cities often lack funding for IT maintenance and lack time to maintain a Web site. Nevertheless, they have refused to be left behind when it comes to the information highway.
That was the case in Arlington, Mass., located just six miles northwest of Boston. By all accounts, the town still values the Representative Town Meeting system, but many of the 44,000 residents either do not attend or are unable to attend town meetings. Therefore, Arlington had to find a way to distribute the town meeting agenda, minutes, current notices and other information to the public.
To make local government information more accessible to its residents, Arlington subscribed to an Internet service that improved the quality and content of the town’s Web site. Additionally, the town added software to its computers that allowed up to 10 authorized staff members to post updates to the Web site. The Internet software includes an interactive calendar that allows staff members to post meeting times, places and agendas, as well as meeting minutes and daily public notices.
Arlington has tried to provide some of the amenities of an online 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week town hall, and the traffic pattern at www.town.arlington.ma.us has increased substantially as a result. Last year, the town was getting 50 hits a day on its Web site; it now averages 100 hits a day. The town plans to attract more site visits next year, when it provides residents with the ability to pay taxes and parking tickets, apply for building permits and download police department forms – online services that even small town residents have grown to expect from their local governments.