Dotgov: How well is your government communicating online?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

On Feb. 14, Cape Girardeau County commissioners will talk about making a huge leap with the county's Internet presence.

Last week, Commissioner Jay Purcell broached the idea of broadcasting meetings live online. He wants to upgrade the county's Web site so visitors can watch and interact by sending e-mails or instant messages. It's a way of creating a more accurate record, he said, and of ensuring transparent government.

(Kit Doyle)

Eric McGowen, Cape Girardeau County's information technology director, manages the county Web site, which he said was designed well before he was hired in 2004. The pages are hosted by a 12-year-old not-for-profit Internet service, Show-Me Net.

McGowan periodically adds new information, such as election results, but "After seeing the fantastic new websites created for the cities of Cape and Jackson, we feel our website is 'behind the curve,' so to speak," McGowen wrote in an e-mail. "We feel that with a redesigned, functional website the County will be able to distribute information to the public more efficiently, and we've got a lot of information to make available."

Availability may not always match access. Getting online is easier for some than others. According to the Nielson Co., which tracks electronic media audiences, 71 percent of Americans use their computers to go online. A 2002 federal study indicated 56 percent of Missourians used the Internet.

What they find varies. The city of Cape Girardeau's site, relaunched less than two years ago, offers "thousands and thousands of pages," said Michelle Hahn, the city's public information coordinator.

While many of those pages are filled with information, others are dead ends. The front page "Contact information" link sends a visitor to a page that simply states "Content here." Ward maps are colorful but don't indicate street names for boundaries.

Hahn shares some of Internet duties with Gayle Conrad, Cape Girardeau's city clerk. Conrad posts meeting schedules with links to agendas as well as meeting minutes. The upgrade offered a choice between the latest version of EasyPost, software that would automatically convert old pages, or pasting information from older pages into new templates. The city did not buy the software; Hahn makes changes as she has time between other duties.

"Nobody has a magic ball that says 'we'll reach this percentage of the population if you do this,'" she said. "You have to make the best of the resources you have."

She said the gap between the Internet savvy and those who don't go online is vanishing as more government offices and agencies direct people to Web sites.

"It's a great tool. It would be greater if it could be better utilized," she said.

Scott County's Web site, designed by the Malden, Mo.,-based Creative Design Group, allows visitors to pay taxes online and look up real estate ownership; it has links for election results and other resources. Each county department page includes phone numbers, office hours and photos of officials. Missing: any kind of maps showing voting districts.

One Scott County page lists cities, with links to their Web sites. Sikeston has a site; Scott City does not.

Jackson's Web site, redesigned in July, combines online homes for city, police, fire and chamber of commerce. Visitors can find meeting agendas, application forms, contact information and quick updates in a box with a series of scrolling notes, including a monthly letter from Mayor Barbara Lohr.

Joan Evans, Jackson's data processing and information systems manager, updates the city's site. She also manages computer equipment, from the large file servers to individual computers, throughout city hall. She creates the computer files used in hand-held meter reading units for utility workers. Like Hahn, keeping the information current is a challenge for Evans.

"People tend to put a lot out there. Some of it doesn't get used," she said. "We're behind in posting, I'll be frank."

Evans said people who call city hall are often directed to the Web site for details on such things as rate changes.

Meeting minutes are not posted.

"We figured people that want to access the minutes can call. We'll make a PDF and e-mail it to them," she said. Such innovations as online payments or videos of meetings are not going to happen anytime soon, she said.

"Cities generally run on skeleton crews as far as day-to-day issues," she said. "The most functional part has to come now and right now, I'm in meter reading."

335-6611, extension 127

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