A couple of decades ago, like many observers of government, we were wildly exuberant about the potential for state and local governments using websites to improve transparency, involve the citizenry, provide fast, efficient services and cultivate a one-on-one relationship with taxpayers.
Back in 1999, we wrote in Governing magazine that “the siren call of the Internet intrigues [the states]. Many states now have detailed websites where citizens can call up all sorts of information about jobs and tourism and often find a lovely full-color photograph of the governor, available to be printed out.” We went on to write about the wonderful opportunities in advanced states to do amazing things like sign up for fishing licenses or pay tax bills.
My, how time has passed. Many of the futuristic opportunities we mentioned have long since become a reality. Sadly, reality is a two edged sword, and even as the capacity of the Internet to improve state and local government services to the public has grown, there’s much more to complain about as well. Here are a handful of our gripes. Some may seem minor, but they all get under our skin:
1) Missing dates. When we find documents on websites, particularly those that consist largely of text, they’re often missing any kind of date. As a result, it’s difficult to tell whether the information is current or thoroughly out of date.
2) Missing phone numbers. It’s almost as though cities and states have forgotten that some folks might want to reach their representatives with a telephone. Often, but not always, you can find e-mail addresses, but phone numbers are often missing. The phrase “contact us,” is overrated.
3) Queries. Many state and local websites give users the opportunities to ask questions by filling out a form, which is deposited in a “general mailbox,” of some kind. This might seem like an efficient way to triage the questions that flow in. But in our experience, most of our questions fall into the hangnail, not the heart attack stack – and so we never hear back at all. This can’t do any good for citizens’ faith that government cares.
4) Un-English English. Acronyms are epidemic online, and they can stand as a giant stumbling block between alleged transparency and real understanding of an issue being featured on line.
5) Search tools. Many state and local websites have some kind of search mechanism. We repeatedly blunder into the error of believing that we can actually find what we want on the site through this fill-in-the-blank service. But it’s not always clear exactly what’s being searched – the website itself, or the entire Internet. And we find ourselves frustrated by the search findings more often than not.