what municipal websites could be

Like other governments, local governments are often too comfortable with the “press release” mode of interaction with its publics. Gerry McGovern, a customer-service-in-government consultant sums it up:

“Too many government websites tell us about the legislation they are enacting. We are victims of a tsunami of policies, procedures and publications in a language that is often meaningless.

The best thing governments can do on the Web is get out of the way.”

EveryBlock is an excellent example of what municipal websites could be if they got out of their own way. As a local website manager familiar with traffic trends, the question “what’s happening in my neighborhood?” is among the “top tasks” that visitors hope municipal government websites will answer.
“Our mission at EveryBlock is to solve that problem. We aim to collect all of the news and civic goings-on that have happened recently in your city, and make it simple for you to keep track of news in particular areas. We’re a geographic filter — a “news feed” for your neighborhood, or, yes, even your block.”

All politics is local.

The rise of mashup citizen-journalist sites and growing prevalence of XML data sources leads the way for local and state governments to enrich their web presences and be much more than press release machines. Business licenses, crime incidents, street closures, and upcoming local meetings are all simple to geo-tag, mashable content many local entities now provide in static, siloed ways.

As people in government explore the uses of social media in building community, encouraging civic engagement, and creating a more informed populace, it would be great if we could learn from projects like these what our communities want most from us, and how to best serve those needs. And then, of course, do it.

[cross-posted at my website]

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Adriel Hampton

Ah, I love EveryBlock! It’s really sad that with the incredible resources of gov, we are not doing things like this. And I agree entirely – all politics is local, and usually about development or schools. I’m blogging about this (and Twitter) at http://localgov20.com. Thanks for your contributions, Caroyln – checking out your blog now.

Mark Danielson

Nice article Carolyn, I hope to break through the billboard mentality of our website. to arrive at two way communications across the site.

I’ve found, for us, baby steps is the way to go. People want progress, it’s the change that ties them in knots.

Carolyn Shannon

@adriel, a handful of local governments are doing pieces of this – I love fixmystreet.com, for example. Perhaps govloop would be a good place to assemble lists of what’s working well, what goes viral. The explosion of social media may be one key in helping make this happen – I see local gov departments setting up their own things (police and fire depts, and to a lesser extent economic development departments), and I know they’re encouraged by the reaction they get. But the key here for me is that it is meeting an urgent customer need.

I can’t tell you how many average residents get excited when I start talking about the possibility of being able to geographically view power outages, or get tweets on storm activity (why is the tornado siren going off? Is it safe to come out of the basement now? Where can I get sandbags?) Part of the problem is resources, but part of the problem is evangelism, education. Lots of people behind the firewall still don’t know much about this stuff. How do we change that?

Carolyn Shannon

@Mark, thanks. True, some people fear change. Baby steps can be good if there’s a plan for measuring success and then going beyond those baby steps (ok so if we get this level of success we’ll move to phase 2 which will be…). Baby steps can also be a really polite way to say no. What are the risks involved in taking baby steps?

One of the common arguments against gov mashups one hears behind the firewall is that mashups are simply beyond the scope of local governments – at best maybe we could provide an XML data stream for EveryBlock to consume. But pull state and county data and make something new? No resources. Or the “we might have to talk to somebody” argument.

Maybe we need an opensource repository just for gov apps – a software library tailored to muni mashup widgets with a developer community around it.

Sid Burgess

I agree with you position. One of the best things municipalities could do is publish their PRs and articles AFTER they just asked what people thought on the subject on their site. Then incorporate that data into their research and publishings and you have built trust and created content people will find more valuable.