“If you don’t have a web presence today you are behind in the times, and any kind of government or nonprofit organization or business — I don’t care who you are — internet-based operations are crucial,” said Jackson County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan.
Todd Collins, director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University, would agree with that. Local governments should be transparent, easy to work with, and community-minded — a robust website can go a long way toward accomplishing those goals.
“It’s the best way — or a good way — to keep the citizens involved and to make sure that they (governments) are open and working effectively,” he said.
From community calendars that list upcoming meetings, festivals and events to postings of budgets, meeting agendas and contact information for elected officials, websites provide a portal to information that make government easier to understand and interact with.
A website is like “a front door to the local government,” Collins said, “so that if nothing else you know where to go even if it’s not on the website. You know who to call.”
McMahan remembers, as a child, watching his parents plan vacations the old-fashioned way — keep an eye on the TV for ads, send away to the address on the screen for a guidebook, then wait for the book to come so they could start calling hotels. Things don’t work that way anymore, and if someone has to do the equivalent amount of work to get basic information about their government, they’re less likely to interact with it.
“Clearly on transparency, anything that’s getting information out about what government officials are doing and why they’re doing it is a good thing,” Collins said.
However, that prize — transparency — has a counterpart: privacy. And the push for web-based government brings with it considerations about what information really should be online and how easy it should be to access. Even information that can be accessed as part of a public record can be sensitive. Look, for instance, at the 2015 incident in which then-presidential candidate Jeb Bush released a dump of emails that included sensitive information such as some residents’ Social Security numbers.
“It’s one thing to have to go look it up at the register of deeds office,” Collins said. “To be able to just download every resident in a whole town or county makes it really easy for people that want to misuse it.”
Transparency should always be a primary goal for governments, Collins said, but a balancing question should go along with online postings: does privacy outweigh public access in this situation?
On the other hand, it’s certainly not an uncommon occurrence for a resident seeking information from their small town’s website to come out frustrated. The meeting agenda they’re looking for isn’t posted, there’s no phone number listed for the mayor, or an email to the public works director bounces back because the person listed online hasn’t worked there for two years.
Resources — or lack thereof — are often the culprit.
“A larger county with more resources, they’re able to hire more folks, have fulltime IT people who can work on the web page, keep it up, whereas smaller governments don’t have the ability to do that,” Collins said.
However, he noted, web development is getting cheaper, and training to manage sites is getting simpler. Extensive knowledge of computer coding is no longer necessary to maintain a website. And perhaps the most important thing a government can do to make the most of what it’s got is just to make sure that there’s someone who’s specifically responsible for keeping the site current. It flat-out looks bad when you click on “events” and get a list of summer festivals from three years ago.
“If they go on the website and it’s all old information and it hasn’t been updated, that in some ways looks worse than no website at all,” Collins said.
Websites can be more than just tools to disseminate information and let people pay bills. They also have the capacity to provide another route for public input. However, Collins said, few government websites take advantage of that opportunity.
“It is generally a one-way street, with local governments largely using web pages to distribute information, but not using it for feedback,” he said.
The people who frequent public comment sessions at town hall are not necessarily the same people who would take advantage of an online comments section, Collins said, so there’s opportunity in exploring that avenue — though with the understanding that online commentary isn’t necessarily representative of the entire citizenry.
“I think any kind of feedback that local government can get can be a good thing,” Collins said. “I just think that those in office and those working in local government have to make sure that we’re getting a true sense of public opinion.”
But the key understanding, Collins said, is that online presence in government is only going to become more important as time goes on.
“I think citizens, like all of us, are expecting that more,” he said. “A lot of folks would prefer to do something online rather than have to make a phone call.”