Authors of “how to succeed in business” books used to remind their readers that any firm’s most important employee was not the boss, but the receptionist; not the manager, but the cashier; not the suits at corporate, but the switchboard operator.
And the most important ad a business could place was in the yellow pages, since that’s how people found you.
The message was simple and telling: the public face of your business is your business.
But the world has changed. Switchboard operators are long gone, and the yellow pages are a legacy technology.
Like it or not, a business is likely to be judged from a digital perspective, and a big factor in that determination is a Web site.
But what if your business is running a city? For municipalities, a Web site often is the most important tool of public communication. It’s not just an electronic gateway, but an all-encompassing information source which should allow residents, businesses and the media to interact quickly and productively with government, get the information they need, solve problems and better understand their city.
“Municipal sites have a plethora of information,” said Jay Hicks, co-owner of Denver Web designer NumaTek LLC. “They’re what we call functional and research-based sites. They’re unlike business sites, in that you’re not necessarily trying to entice site visitors, but providing information that they have to have.”
He said a typical Web site visitor decide in five to eight seconds whether to stay on a site, so business sites try to do things to keep visitors there.
“Municipal sites are different,” Hicks said. “They’re more like the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). You want to do your business and get out. If they’re hard to navigate, or it takes you 30 minutes to find the information you want, you’ll be mad.”
With that in mind, a review of the Web sites of five Front Range cities shows that three, Boulder, Fort Collins and Aurora, are informative, user-friendly and easy to navigate, while Colorado Springs and Pueblo have a bit of work to do.
Four of the five city Web sites scored well.
Pueblo was the exception, because important links (e.g., to city departments) were non-functional on the dates that CSBJ explored the site.
Each city has had a municipal Web site since the mid-1990s, and has had plenty of time to learn and implement the underlying technologies of compiling, uploading, and updating information.
Whatever you want, you can probably find it eventually — but how long is eventually?
Design and ease of navigation
Boulder, Fort Collins and Aurora lead this category.
All three feature clean, uncluttered, and simple home pages with links that quickly take visitors where they want to go.
Colorado Springs, by contrast, has a busy, even whiny home page.
One flattering set of facts dissolves into another. (“Since 2000, the city has added 1,847 acres to its park system. Meanwhile, the city’s general fund budget for park maintenance has decreased by $1.9 million.”)
Site navigation on www.springsgov.com is self-explanatory, if often clumsy compared to other cities.
Pueblo brings up the rear, with a confusing design and — worst of all — multiple non-functioning links.
“When you’re building a site, you have to know who’s going to visit it, and why,” Hicks said. “Job seekers, people who want to pay parking tickets, people who want other info? Are 90 percent of your likely visitors elderly? If so, you need a simple, easily navigable site. You have to fit a lot of information on the site, so the ‘site tree,’ the architecture, needs to be given a lot of thought.”
Once again, Boulder, Fort Collins and Aurora lead the pack. Colorado Springs and Pueblo don’t feature business links on their home pages.
Colorado Springs requires visitors to click on “city agencies,” scroll down to “economic development,” then to “business development,” but there’s not much there.
No names, no phone numbers. There’s only a single link to the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.
Pueblo, however, is much worse.
There’s no business category to be found — just a link to the Pueblo Economic Development Corp. Last week, the link was broken, as was the link to “city departments/contact us.”
By contrast, “business” is one of Boulder’s five featured links.
Click the link and a visitor gets a full list of programs and departments of interest to the business community, as well as multiple outside links and the names and direct phone numbers of city officials.
Fort Collins features a “business portal,” with easy access to similar information sets, as does Aurora.
“In my experience, municipal sites are often like non-profit sites,” said Dave Carlson, CEO of Green Chair Marketing Group, which has more than 10 years experience in website design and marketing., “They don’t look at their sites as marketing tools, they don’t treat it like a business. They need to understand that the site is both a working site that provides information, and a marketing site with, for example, business relocation information.”
Three of the five cities get high marks, and Boulder gets an A+.
The city lists the home telephone numbers of the mayor and every member of City Council, as well as direct phone numbers for the city manager and all department heads.
Members of the media can access a directory of 26 “staff experts,” who can speak authoritatively about everything from municipal finance to mountain lion sightings. Boulder’s Web site promises a response to any query within 24 hours.
Fort Collins lists cell phone numbers for all council members, as well as a link enabling residents to send a simultaneous e-mail to the city manager, the mayor and all council members.
There is no stated minimum response time.
Aurora features a “press room,” but directs members of the media to use the public communications department as the gatekeeper. Sixteen city employees are designated as media contacts. Most city council members list a home or cell phone in addition to an office number.
Colorado Springs and Pueblo lag the field.
Colorado Springs City Council members, with the exception of Randy Purvis, list only their city e-mail addresses and city phone numbers.
Although city department numbers are listed, many of them are answered via automated voicemail systems. Tellingly, the Web site lists no phone number for public communications — just the main city number.
Inquiry response time, at two weeks, is slow.
Springs public communications chief Sue Skiffington-Blumberg said that the city tries to respond within five business days, but that the loss of more than 200 employees through layoffs because of the recession has severely affected every city department.
Pueblo lists phone numbers for city council members, and might do so for senior city employees — but the site was partially disabled last week, and no contact information was available.
“There are plenty of Web sites that are directories, like the yellow pages,” Carlson said. “A municipal site has to do that, and more. Good analytics are important. You need to know what people use the most, and then you can drill down and provide the information silos that people need.”
All five cities have won national awards for their Web sites.
Since 2001, the National League of Cities has sponsored the “Digital Cities” contest, which “examines how cities use technology to create a seamless environment between local government and constituents.”
Awards are given in three categories, according to population.
Colorado Springs has been among the top 10 in the large city category (population 250,000 or above) seven times, most recently during 2007.
Aurora, Boulder, Pueblo and Fort Collins have also been recognized with multiple awards.
During 2008, Boulder finished eighth, Pueblo 10th and Aurora won first prize among all large cities — the first Colorado city to be so honored.
“This year’s winners reflect that even with budgetary challenges, cities are placing a high value on citizen engagement and improved services,” said Cathilea Robinett, executive director for the Center for Digital Government. “Cities are incorporating newer technologies such as webcasting, podcasts and blogs while continuing to use IT to enhance delivery options for citizens and businesses.”
Which Carlson would encourage all municipalities to do.
“Some designers go crazy with (home pages), and that means smaller fonts. I tend to go with bigger fonts. You need good illustrations, and that may mean spending money for really good photography,” he said. ““I’m not sure where municipal sites are with Web 2.0, with user-generated content. They might look at news sites, where readers upload photos, videos, and other content to the site, enter contests, and the like.”
The Colorado Springs Business Journal sent the following e-mail to the mayor and members of City Council:
“Dear Mayor Rivera and members of City Council,
“The purpose of this e-mail is to determine how quickly you receive e-mails directed to your city addresses and how soon members of the media can expect a response from such inquiries.
“Please respond at your convenience.”
The e-mail was sent at 5:05 p.m. Oct. 19. All members of council responded (Sean Paige, who was appointed to council earlier this month was not listed on the city’s Web site).
As of Oct. 28, no response had been received from Mayor Lionel Rivera.
Tom Gallagher: 5:23 p.m., Oct. 19
“Asked And Answered”
Scott Hente: 5:37 p.m., Oct. 19
Jan Martin: 6:35 p.m., Oct. 19
I don’t distinguish between e-mails from the media and city residents. The time it takes to respond to e-mails is directly related to my ability to run my own business and attend to city business, both of which require considerable time and effort each day. I try to respond to e-mails and phone calls within 24 hours, but it’s not always possible to be as responsive as citizens or the media would like.”
Darryl Glenn: 7:27 p.m. Oct. 19
“I try to check my e-mail three times a day.”
Sent using BlackBerry
Randy Purvis 7:35 p.m. Oct. 19
“This is a silly test. I am sure the response time has many variables, day of the week, time of day, subject matter, nature of my personal schedule and work schedule, etc.”
Bernie Herpin: 5:34 a.m. Oct. 20
Test message received and responded to.
I try to respond to every message I get. In many cases, my answer is very detailed and directed to their question. I spend about 2-3 hours per day responding to e-mails. Since we are able to access our e-mail using Outlook Web Access (OWA), I can read and respond to e-mails without having to be in my City Hall office.
Larry Small: 10:59 p.m. Oct. 21