I was recently involved in a work-related project that included updating media contact information for various town and village officials across Central New York.
When I needed to find information on mayors, town board members and village trustees, I turned to Google, hoping to use local governments’ home websites as a starting point.
Since I’ve had experience in this sort of thing as a journalist, I expected to find some problems. But I didn’t expect to find such a shambles at almost every site.
Various websites for towns and villages had limited or no contact information for important elected officials. Some listed phone numbers that had been disconnected. Others had email addresses that didn’t work. More than one site had working phone numbers and email addresses, but they belonged to elected officials who were no longer in office.
One clerk told me I could find numbers and emails for each village trustee on their website. However, all trustees had the same phone number underneath their names ― which was the number I had just used to contact the clerk. They also had the same email address, which also was directed to the clerk.
Almost all of the sites had some sort of major flaw, whether it was broken links, bad navigational tools, antiquated design templates (similar to ones I used in middle school), long-outdated meeting minutes and agendas, or super-old news items and announcements. The digital age of instant information and easy communication that has transformed the world over the last 10 years has yet to find its way to our local city and town halls.
It’s a problem that goes far beyond Central New York. According to a December 2014 online survey of 334 local governments, only 34 percent of respondents rated their respective websites as “highly effective,” according to Vision Internet, a technology firm that specializes in government website development.
In a 2014 report from New York’s Empire Center, 85 percent of the websites for the state’s 500 largest counties, municipalities and school districts failed to earn a passing grade for transparency in the center’s first annual SeeThroughNY Website Report Card. Websites for towns received a 79 percent failure rate, while village sites received a 93 percent failure rate.
A further look into individual categories found that information about officials’ contacts received a 65 percent failure rate; public meetings, 21 percent; public information, 81 percent; budgets, 37 percent; financial reports, 79 percent; contracts, 99 percent; taxes and fees, 36 percent; facilities and services, 37 percent; expenditures, 48 percent; and ease of navigation, 72 percent.
The Empire Center released a progress report in 2016 showing some improvement, but the majority of websites still leave much to be desired. Evidently, local governments are not taking advantage of the enormous benefits that the internet can bring to communities.
Yet just as more people are turning to the internet for news, entertainment, shopping and more, they are also doing the same when it comes to civic engagement. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that 34 percent of American adults had recently contacted a government official or spoke out in a public forum via online methods.
Just as news, retail and Netflix have adapted their ways to fit the modern era, local governments should be doing the same. In an age where we have apps that can tell you in a pirate voice where to find your vehicle in a parking lot, we should be able to find out what goes on in our villages.
In 2016, Texas passed a law requiring large school districts, cities and counties to create audio and video recordings of board, city council and commissioner meetings and then post them on the internet. Starting last month, the Syracuse Common Council began live-streaming their meetings, something Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration outlined as a priority earlier this year.
That kind of effort should be watched closely by other municipalities who need services upgraded. One of the greatest responsibilities of government is to provide citizens with the accessibility and information they need on issues surrounding their hometown. Informed citizens make better governments and better governments make better communities.
After all, it’s on a local level where the most people can make the most difference. A strong online presence would make that concept more possible than ever.