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June 25, 2008 - Bill Ackerbauer
Please stand by. We're experiencing technical difficulties ...
In today's print edition, we ran a story on Page 3 that mentioned Fulton County is having trouble putting some information on its Web site. It seems one county official needs to request the permission and/or assitance of another county official to put a state report -- even a simple hyperlink to the already-online document -- on the county Web site. And he has to request it in writing!
As an editor and blogger here at The Leader-Herald, I guess I'm lucky that we have a quick, user-friendly system for managing our Web site. This morning it took me about 43 seconds to find said state report on the Web and insert the link address into a box accompanying Mike Anich's story, both in the print edition and the online edition of the newspaper. Granted, I had to use a rather esoteric and challenging search interface to locate the site. (It's called Google; you might have heard of it.) Furthermore, I needed to employ a complicated textual data-transfer technique to convey the information to our readers. (We adepts refer to this technique as "cut-and-paste." Don't attempt it at home unless you've taken the certification seminar.)
The problem might be that our county leaders have a difficult or outdated system in place for updating the Web site they use to inform the public. Perhaps the person or people who originally created the site no longer works for the county, or perhaps it was created by an outside consultant who is no longer available or too expensive. Perhaps there's no one working for the county now who has the technical skills necessary to update the Web site in a timely fashion. Or perhaps the problem is more bureaucratic than "technical."
Whatever the reason, the county needs to get on the ball and bring its Web site up to date and keep it accurate. For crying out loud, the Board of Supervisors page on the county site still identifies Stephen Barker as the chairman. He left public office nearly seven months ago!
Fulton County is not the only culprit and perhaps not the worst. Many of the municipal Web sites in our region are frequently out of date. For example, the city of Johnstown's site still contains links to a bill-payment system that, last we heard, isn't working properly. Today's accepted standards for public information on the Web are not as forgiving as they were way back in the dark ages of the 1990s, when municipalities tended to make static one-shot Web pages and let them stand for years at a time. That doesn't fly any longer.
Our local governments should follow the example of some state offices that have recently taken big steps toward more open, accurate and citizen-friendly uses of the Internet. As citizens, we don't expect our local government Web sites to have all the answers to all our questions and concerns, just the basics: Who our officials are and how we can contact them? When do the garbage and recycling get picked up? How are our tax dollars being spent (it's not rocket science to put budget spreadsheets online)?
Municipal Web sites don't need to provide day-to-day summaries of the latest developments in local public affairs -- that's The Leader-Herald's job. But what information there is on a government Web site needs to be current and accurate.
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