Government website is now an essential and expected

A constantly growing number of people expect an internet presence. A dynamic government webpage that provides a variety of content is now a basic part of providing government services.

It is the government for the people. In part, that means making it easy and providing modern efficient service for residents.

In today’s world customers expect, and a government’s citizens expect to find things on the internet. It is today’s front door for the government, no matter how small that government is. That means a current up-to-date copy of ordinances, as well as other things, should be on the government’s webpage.

Recently had occasion to conduct research on the content of zoning ordinances in two counties. What was surprising is that in one county six out of 18 local governments did not have their zoning ordinance on the website. One community had their zoning ordinance on the webpage, but it was not the current version.

One of the first and very basic steps in achieving voluntary zoning ordinance compliance is helping people know what is required. Most people will follow local ordinances if they know what the local ordinance requires. But that means making it easy for people to access the ordinance.

Not only the ordinance, but also the applications forms, cheat-sheets or pamphlets that help explain various aspects of complying with local ordinances, and more.

At a minimum a local government website should include:

  • The government’s name, and county it is located in (on every page of the website). Often a local government in Michigan will have the same name as a local government in another state, or nation. Help the user, so when they search for “Wexford County” they know if they went to the “Wexford” near the center of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula versus the “Wexford County” in Ireland.
  • Directions to find the local government’s facilities (town hall, police & fire department).
  • Open Meetings Act notices for upcoming meetings. It should be the full notice, not just a calendar entry. That notice should be on the home page, or the homepage should include a prominently displayed link to a webpage of open meeting act notices. Many communities also post agendas and the entire meeting packet up on their website. For more detail see the article “New Open Meetings Act notice requirements.”
  • Freedom of Information Act requires a summary of the local unit of government’s procedures and guidelines for freedom of information act requests, or both the summary and adopted guideline, be prominently posted on its website. For more detail see the article “Major amendments to the Freedom of Information Act require local government attention now.”
  • Staff directory (including contact information: snail mail address, email, and phone).
  • Listing of departments, elected officials, and how to contact them.
  • A “how do I . . . ?” feature where people can find the service desired by the topic of the service (not everyone will know to look for how to reserve a park under the Clerk’s office rather than the Parks Department.
  • Customer service features. Not just a list of who does what, but actually move functions to the website. For example, the website may say where to apply for a zoning permit, and what the office hours are. But also the website should have the zoning application forms on the web, and explain how the finished application to be emailed to the local government for processing.
  • All meeting minutes, agendas, meeting packets for all boards, commissions, councils, and committees.
  • The performance dashboard (where a snapshot of local government’s fiscal and operational measures can be found).
  • All adopted ordinances, the current version.
  • Plans, policies.
  • Election results, and pre-election information (who is running, where to register, to vote).
  • Audits.
  • Job openings, contracts (out for bid or out for request for proposals [RFP]), and rules for when bids/RFPs are needed and how to be a vendor.
  • Property ownership, taxes, etc.
  • Historic, demographic, data, links to significant community organizations, neighboring governments the state planning region, and so on.

One example of a local government website is the City of Ludington’s. Leelanau County’s web system is a cooperative set of webpages with most of the municipal governments in the county: one web system serving all the local units of government. I would be interested in knowing of other good local government websites, please send them to the author of this article. The organization BallotPedia (The Encyclopedia of American Politics) attempts to evaluate government websites. It is an indicator, but not always accurate. I found a few flaws when comparing their data with county websites I am familiar with. A local government can request them to evaluate a website.

There is now a major incentive for placing more and more things on a government’s webpage. The Freedom of Information Act now has restrictions on charging costs for responding to information requests. In an increased number of situations, local government will not be able to recover its out-of-pocket costs. But the Freedom of Information Act now says that if the requested material is on the local government’s website for viewing or download, then local government has fulfilled a Freedom of Information Act request by responding with the URL directly to the information.

That saves the local government time and material that would otherwise be needed to respond to an information request, avoids possibly losing money from such requests, provides better service to the public, more government transparency, and a stronger more robust web presence on the Internet.

Use of an internet page has many advantages: It is a less expensive way to get information out and to publish materials; it is a faster means of communicating and getting materials available; it provides versatility (and at lower cost) to comply with accessibility standards required by American with Disabilities Act – things such as the user’s ability to make font sizes larger, or have computer “read” the content, and so on. Accommodating those types of needs is much more difficult to do when one has to print out the material on paper to provide to a customer. It also becomes a new “front door” for the local government. That new “front door” will only become more important as more and more people expect access via the Internet.

Finally, you will want your government’s website to pass muster when a critical reader tries to evaluate the accuracy and dependability of the webpage. So test your local government web page using these resources:

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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