This is the first in a series of posts that will evaluate the Watertown, MA website, platforms like CivicPlus and offer suggestions for methods to improve online services and reduce costs for citizens.
Union contracts, local government budgets, school district shortfalls, pensions and dealing with debt pulled me in.
We purchased a home here in the spring of 2010 and as a new home owner with one kid in the school district and another coming soon, these were topics that I wanted to learn more about. Over the past 10 months the Watertown, MA town website has become a weekly destination, where I look for budget, personnel, meeting notes and other documents. After spending significant time with the official town website I have thoughts about how the online services provided by the town could be modified to better support the citizens of Watertown.
What gives me the qualifications to evaluate the town website? Well I live in Watertown, pay taxes, I’m a software developer by trade and I’ve been in the profession of creating high end web and mobile projects since 1997. I spend all of my work hours on the web, using online tools and services to help with my job. I also read quite a bit about user experience, user centered design and visual information design to keep up to date on trends and techniques so that I can apply them to my work. I am also very interested in local government and understanding how it operates here in Watertown, MA.
Watertown has a mildly useful although challenging to navigate, website developed on the CivicPlus e-government platform. The features offered on the town website would be great if this was 2001, but a decade later, features like a content management system, document repository, events calendar, email notifications and a staff directory are commodities that a collection of free online tools can provide.
CivicPlus developed the Watertown website and they build websites that are solely focused on the government sector. They have stated that 800 cities and towns use their products. With ~87,000 municipalities there are a number of competitors that have developed products similar to CivicPlus. CivicLogic and eGov Strategies are two of the more popular but they all sell themselves by touting industry expertise and knowledge:
We know government. We know how government works. And we know how it can work better. CivicPlus transforms standard sites into powerful communications hubs.
Your government entity is unique, therefore your business challenges require a team that will create distinctive solution strategies with you in mind. At eGov Strategies, we provide technological and real-world expertise so that you can achieve success; measured by the delivery of customized services to your customers, 24×7.
The website features that each of these e-government companies offer are now baseline, table stakes for any modern free, open source web platform like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla or as plugins to web frameworks like Ruby on Rails or Django. E-government web platforms have features that are now commodities and those companies now must market unique knowledge of the municipal industry to set them apart from thousands of other web development companies.
The problem with this marketing technique is that most cities and towns face the same problem that any group or organization has when they want to share information and collaborate with each other. This is not a problem that is unique to government.
I am writing this in hopes that I can convince employees in Watertown that there are alternatives to CivicPlus that are free and can provide better engagement with citizens than the commercial e-government solutions. I also hope that a few people living in one of the ~87,000 local municipalities in the United States stumbles their way to this guide and attempts to try this.
What gives me hope is that the city of Manor, Texas has already done most of it.
Part 1: The competition
We should understand exactly what the current state of the Watertown website is so the first post in this series will review the website product from CivicPlus called CivicPlus GCMS. Watertown uses this product so I’ll use them as the benchmark for identifying issues and offering alternative, free solutions.
Let’s review the CivicPlus website marketing materials that describe why they provide the best government website solution and what features they offer.
1. Helping Communities Engage & Interact
Many companies provide municipal websites. But CivicPlus does more. We create community engagement tools. Our online solutions have the power to transform the way your community does business.
2. Save Money
Let’s go straight to the bottom line. With CivicPlus services, you will save time, budget dollars and — by moving more government paperwork online — help protect the environment. We have budget-savings solutions for all types and sizes of cities and counties.
3. Work with Experts
CivicPlus has more than a decade of expertise in government best practices. We’ve launched more than 800 municipal websites for cities, counties, associations, school districts and colleges. Visit our portfolio to learn more.
4. Affordable Innovation
The overall value we offer as opposed to our competitors is truly superior. Compare both upfront and five-year costs and discover the difference. Our modules make day-to-day functions streamlined. And we provide new modules and upgrades free.
5. Update Info with Ease
Our Content Management System is easy to use. It is an intuitive interface that allows staff members to update and maintain your site in just minutes a day. Delegate user access to individuals or a group. A dynamic, up-to-the-minute site is yours. Go here to learn more.
6. Be Secure
Enjoy the security and efficiency of cloud computing. All sites are hosted within our secure facility in Kansas City, Missouri. You are assured 99.9% uptime and full data protection.
7. Power Up
When you partner with CivicPlus, you join a team of government website experts dedicated to the absolute success of your site and your community. Our work results in cost savings, efficiencies, end user benefits and industry recognition. Since 2008, CivicPlus clients have won more than 150 prominent website awards. That’s good for you and your community’s progress.
Reviewing each of their core differentiators:
- Marketing Fluff: The first bullet about helping communities engage and connect is pure marketing fluff without measurable metrics so there really isn’t anything to say here.
- Saving Money: I’ve been to numerous town council and school committee meetings over the past 10 months. I don’t see less paper floating around the gallery – nearly all the documents presented in the Document Center are printed as handouts to the audience. I say this is straight B.S. the environment isn’t being helped by having PDFs up in the Document Center.
- Experts: There is nothing unique about a knowledge sharing and CMS driven information website. When I read this it says… We use our relationships with city and town managers to build a customer base. Also kudos for managing 800 clients that is nothing to sneeze at but it isn’t the 50,000,000 websites that WordPress.com has.
- Affordable: The second time cost is mentioned so this must be important to municipalities. They talk about comparing costs to the competition but maybe they don’t think that free solutions are competition? Just how much does CivicPlus cost? Well, John McKown wrote an article that shows it can cost nearly $27,000 for a three year contract. Given that the annual Watertown budget is ~$100,000,000 this is a drop in the bucket but as we look to trim everywhere, I’m planning on writing to the Town Manager to understand the full cost to Watertown.
- Update information: A great feature in 2001.
- Be Secure: Nice that the town doesn’t have to run it’s own hardware to host the website. Only one data center that is centrally located? What does the backup and redundancy plan look like when that data center goes offline?
- Power Up: This sounds great! How are those cost savings passed on to the citizens of the town? I respect the profession but building your own custom CMS when so many well tested, scalable and proven tools exist why not build on top of them?
I’ve spent several months using the Watertown website so I’m intimately familiar with the various features that CivicPlus is providing that the town is using. If I have missed some features I’d love for either a Watertown or a CivicPlus employee to catch my mistakes and add a comment.
- A Content Management System or a CMS allows town employees to update pages of information, upload documents, photos and change text on the website without having to pay expensive web developers to make the changes. This feature keeps people informed with more recent information and allows individual employees to make changes without having all text changed centrally. Pages of information are usually created with a CMS and provide a method for linking to other pages or websites.
- The Calendar of Events provides information about meetings, concerts, recreation department events. Generally anything that you might think to put on a calendar so you can be reminded about it. Watertown happens to break their events into a few useful categories like Recreation, Town Calendar and Senior Events.
- The Document Center is where meeting minutes, agendas, forms, reports and other documents can be stored so that people using their computers at home can read them without having to go to the town office. Most of the documents are stored as PDFs, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Excel files.
- The Resource Directory contains names, phone numbers, departments and email addresses for town employees. You can search for a particular person if you happen to know their name.
- The Emergency Alert system provides a graphic on the town website that changes color when something important happens. You can also be notified by email using the Notify Me function.
- Notify Me provides a way for people to sign up to email distribution lists and have either an email or an SMS/text message sent when the list moderator sends a new message.
- For a fee each CivicPlus website allows for a city or town to have a Custom Design using images, colors and fonts that provide a more unique visual design.
- A Mobile Website Template provides easier accessibility when using mobile devices like smartphones. I don’t believe this is enabled on the Watertown website.
- Structured Job Postings can be created and posted where visitors can sort and view job listings.
I believe I have accurately described how Watertown is currently using the CivicPlus platform and captured the key differentiators as CivicPlus sees them. If you live in Watertown, maybe you found a new feature on the town website that you were unfamiliar with. If you have thoughts or comments about your experience with the town website please add a comment to this post.
I’ll be reviewing each of the features of the Watertown website as described above and offering suggestions for improvements and alternatives.