I Have to Ask: What’s the Future of Local Government Websites?

Posted on May 8, 2018

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Patrick Rollens, City of Corvallis, Oregon, writes about the future of local government websites.

If you’re like me, you probably know at least one or two people at work who can remember your organization’s first website: a creaking HTML-powered relic, probably featuring too much Comic Sans, that was nonetheless a technological marvel when it debuted ages ago.

The fact is, most municipal governments have been on the web for nearly two decades. The features and capabilities of a typical website have improved so much that they’re almost unrecognizable today, compared to those early horse-and-buggy websites. At the same time, the technical expertise required to launch and maintain a website has come down to the point where many towns and agencies have just one staffer who is responsible for website duties. Often it’s just one of several communications or outreach tasks on that person’s plate.
And with the massive popularity of social network sites – which take a lot of the design and administrative work off your plate – it’s reasonable to ask if perhaps the glory days of the classic local government website have come and gone.

Three years ago, I might have said yes – and good riddance.

But not today.

A confluence of factors that arose in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election have laid bare a gnawing void in the information landscape of the internet. Memes and trolls replaced primary sources and reliable information. Social data mining replaced public records databases. And tweets replaced websites as primary information archives.

You can see where I’m going with this.

I would argue that today, more than ever, local governments and public sector agencies have a responsibility to offer a robust and accessible website experience that caters to all web users, from tweens on iPads to retirees … also on iPads. And everyone in between. This means continued and ongoing investment and support into web hosting, security and maintenance.

I’ve come to this opinion based on a number of intersecting factors.

The World Needs Primary Sources – As a former journalist, my stomach churns whenever I type the words “fake news,” but there’s no better way of describing the abrupt, unexpected death of primary sources on the internet. Luckily, public sector agencies produce this stuff like cattle fodder – reports, briefings, case studies, examinations and more. Simply put: We make primary sources. It’s the lifeblood of our democracy and it deserves a safe and secure place on the internet. Which leads me to my second point…

Social Media Is Only Free Until It’s Not – Remember, when we post clunky PDFs or mundane meeting agendas to our websites, we are building an archive of our city or agency. In doing so, we’re contributing to a public record that probably stretches back decades or even centuries. It’s heady stuff, when you think about it. That information shouldn’t be handed over to a social media company with questionable ethics, based on a promise that it’ll be freely accessible forever. It’s only free until it’s not. And lately, we’ve realized as a country that “free” still has a cost associated with it. As the old saying goes: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer – you’re the product.” That’s not to say we shouldn’t be leveraging the power of social networks! They offer enormous potential to reach a huge base of web users. But I shudder to think about a small, cash-strapped town considering deactivating their municipal website because “we’ve got a Facebook page, what else do we need?”

A Rock-Solid Website Improves Your Social Media – You’ve heard it a thousand times: “I read about it on Twitter!” Well, chances are the person didn’t *actually* read about it on Twitter. They probably clicked a link and read that instead. Character limits, am I right? This is where your website comes in. You want to be that link that gets clicked. That big, empty text box on Facebook is tempting, but don’t fall for it. Public sector agencies should be driving most (if not all) social clicks back to their websites. You want to create an ecosystem where all of your social media channels point back to – you guessed it – your primary source. I’ll admit that this runs counter to how most social algorithms work. They’d prefer to see lots of content on their platforms, rather than a short snippet and a link back to your website. It’s a judgment call for your marketing team to mull over.

The tide may be turning on this. Just speaking personally, I’ve started hearing from members of the public, as well as elected officials, that maybe social media isn’t where we should be focusing quite so much time and energy.

Thankfully, I’m able to respond honestly and say that the majority of my web work in a given week involves content creation for our own website, not for somebody else’s website (which is what social media is, at the end of the day). I’m increasingly focused on keeping my own house in order, first and foremost. Maybe we all should focus on that.

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