There’s not much that can be done to the city and county websites that would do any damage.

They are the digital equivalents of a three car pile-up on the interstate. Well, in the county’s case, it’s more like a five car pile-up.

If a public website is the on-line representation of a government’s persona, our governments’ personalities are defined by secrecy, misdirection and obfuscation. Even when you know information is on the website, it doesn’t mean you’ll ever find it. It’s been buried so expertly, it regularly requires a search party to find it.

It’s hard to fathom the fact that city and county government spend about $31 million a year on information technology, and that these websites are the best we can get.

Monkeys And Hamlet

That’s why the Wharton Administration is on the right track with its intention to overhaul the city’s website as part of its new transparency policies. While local government has a dismal record of imbedding new technologies in ways to open up the public sector and to create effective e-government, there’s no reason that the fundamentals of on-line transparency shouldn’t be done forthwith.

The Wharton Administration is currently circulating a survey asking for the public’s advice on improving the city website. It’s good that a usable, user-friendly city website is a priority of Mayor Wharton, and seven years of frustration with the county website fuel his determination to do something different in City Hall.

As the theory goes, if you lock a group of monkeys in a room with typewriters, they will eventually type Hamlet. In the meantime, they could be accused of typing out the Shelby County website, perhaps the most impenetrable government site anywhere.

Our Suggestions

As for the city website, it would be an improvement if it just got the basics right.

First, get rid of all the extraneous information. Who really is going to the city website for tourist information? Make it simple and make it about city government.

Second, don’t make us have to know the city organizational chart to find information. It’s a curious feature of local government websites that before a visitor can find the information that he needs, he needs to know what division or department it would be found in. Hell, we don’t even care what the org chart looks like, much less that it’s used to organize information on the websites. We just want to find what we need without having to click four times to get to it or rummage around to find out what department it’s in.

Third, it’s not just about an understandable website. More to the point, it’s about understanding writing. For example, it’s just hard to understand why there’s not someone among the 6,000 employees of city government who can be asked to write a easy-to-read summary of the 409-city operating budget. After all, the new transparency policy will be toothless if the information posted online is in the kind of bureaucratese that defies comprehension.

Fourth, post everything. A quick survey of studies and major reports prepared in the past 5-7 years tallies more than 165 of them. About five of them are on-line. Here’s a rule of thumb: everything goes on-line – tax freezes, contracts, special project reports and data that gives the public the ability to hold departments accountable. Some cities are doing some remarkable things by using GIS to measure city services and keep citizens informed, and there’s just no excuse why Memphis isn’t among them.

Be The Best

Fifth, don’t appoint a committee to build the new website. Group think is the enemy of a cohesive vision and execution of a quality website. That’s why we suggest that city government do something really revolutionary – forego one of those $1 million contracts with some corporate giant hired to build a new website. Rather, create a R & D war room by hiring 3-5 young web designers for $15,000 apiece and turn them loose to design the model 21st century government website.

Six, build a website with the user in mind rather than being driven by political egos and political agendas. Don’t talk to us like voters; talk to us like the people we are – the ones who pay your salaries. Tell us what we want to know, rather than what you think is in your political self-interest.

Seven, get serious about e-government. Every form or application in city government should be on-line – every one. Meanwhile, we ought to be able to do more than pay government money for tickets and taxes. Rather, we ought to be able to do anything on-line that we can do standing at a counter in a city department.
Meanwhile, dozens of governments are developing broadband networks for their communities, but Memphis isn’t one of them. Here, not even downtown Memphis is wireless. In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin introduced the “Atlanta Dashboard” that keeps city government managers focused on goals and indicators of success. Most of all, it opens a window for citizens to judge how city operations are performing.

Keeping Pace

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino is equipping all city vehicles to double as “digital street assessment tools” to measure vibrations created by rough roads and potholes, then send the data to a computer that maps locations using GPS. Shanghai, China, is doing much the same thing, but its constantly updated map is also used by private companies who want to know which routes are best on a given day.

At its most basic, there needs to be a plan to apply technology to improve administrative functions and to share more information within and without government. More to the point, this level of transparency can in fact transform the relationship between the government and the people it serves.

It’s about creating government that’s open for business when we need it, 24/7/365. It’s about citizen-centric government and flattening the bureaucracy, and it’s about increasing government efficiency and productivity, promoting transparency and accountability, and inviting the public into discussions and decisions.

That seems to be where the Wharton Administration is headed. It’s past time for Memphis to get into the first tier of cities using technology to modernize and economize its operations and to engage and involve its citizens.