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A Plan for www.Seattle.Gov

From the Seattle e-Government Steering Group, June 2004

Summary

The City of Seattle is moving rapidly to implement web self-service capabilities for its constituents. The City’s existing web infrastructure and staffing levels are adequate to support informational and small-scale transactional applications. However, both will need some enhancement to support the new services currently under development.

In these times of shrinking revenue and rising expectations, it is important to have and follow a Citywide plan for this transition that focuses investments on the most important priorities and avoids expensive competing solutions. This plan describes nine strategies for improving the City’s main public website.

Purpose

The purpose of this plan is to:

  • describe why Seattle’s main public web site should be improved
  • describe goals for the improved site
  • specify important strategies for improving the web site, and
  • provide a framework for specific policies and tactical programs

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Scope

The plan focuses on the information and services the City provides to the public on the World Wide Web – the City’s Seattle.Gov website. It describes how the City can transition from providing static web pages and downloadable forms to allowing constituents to conduct their City business online.

City employees use the web in a myriad of ways to provide service and to support each other. This Plan may be expanded in the future to address employees’ needs for web-based services.

This plan does not cover how the City uses its Seattlechannel.org website. Rather, this plan is a companion plan for the Seattle Commission on Electronic Communication’s report entitled “New Elements of Democracy” (.pdf) that is focused on how the City uses the Seattlechannel.org website and television channel together to “increase public awareness, understanding and participation in government, community and cultural affairs.”

Other Internet-based capabilities like email, chat, and file transfer are outside of the scope of this plan.

Seattle.Gov Today

The City of Seattle pioneered the use of municipal websites as a means to communicate with its constituents. The City’s website continues to win awards and set trends. It has grown to over 80,000 individual web pages with contributions from every City department. In addition to viewing city information, many transactions can be initiated by users of Seattle.Gov. Visit this link for a list of online services currently available on Seattle.Gov. Most of these services, however, can only be started online. The majority of the transactions are completed by downloading, printing, and mailing back forms and requires manual processing by a City employee.

Individual departments develop and produce most of the content on Seattle.Gov. The City’s homepage (or front door), its top level navigation pages, and overall organization are managed by the Citywide Web Team (CWT) within The Department of Information Technology (DoIT). The CWT also supports the infrastructure underlying Seattle.Gov. DEA and the CWT work together sharing management of Citywide web applications like the telephone directory. Departments are allocated a portion of the costs for the central services provided by DoIT and the CWT.

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Motivations to Change

Current Challenges

The City is facing some challenges as it attempts to manage a website as big and diverse as Seattle.Gov. Ideally, the entire website would look and function as if it were a part of a single organization. However, the distributed nature of how content is developed and deployed results in some inconsistencies. Departments tend to organize their content according to how the department is structured rather than by user need. The result is information “stove piping,” requiring a user to look in many different places for information they see as related.

Citizen expectations are also growing. The City is home to several national companies famous for their technology and customer service. City residents tend to be more educated and have a high adoption rate for broadband Internet access. The City routinely receives requests for services to be made available online.

Future Challenges

City departments are planning or currently building web-based applications that enable transactions to be completed online. Visit this link for a chart showing what is planned for 2004 and 2005. Depending on the adoption rate, many of these applications hold the potential of processing millions of dollars annually in City revenue. These applications will need to be managed, deployed, and maintained in a coordinated and secure manner.

Connecting the City’s production databases to the Internet will result in some new challenges. Poorly designed web applications or supporting infrastructure put the City’s network, productions servers, and data at risk. The City must be prepared to make the necessary investment in infrastructure and management practices to protect its critical business data and the privacy of its citizens.

Web-based applications hold the promise of being available to constituents around the clock and on weekends. However, current City staffing levels typically cover only the normal work days. Support for the City’s web infrastructure is restricted to weekdays from 7:00 AM to 5:00PM. Departments deploying online services will need to plan on how to handle the inevitable situation where a customer has a problem during off hours.

Providing self-service transactions may make economic sense. Shrinking revenues require the City to look for ways to take costs out of City government operations. Streamlining and automating City processes with the web may result in cost savings to compliment increased customer satisfaction. However, City departments will be challenged to ensure that new web services do not incur an unwelcome net added operating expense.

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Seattle.Gov Tomorrow

The web will become a universal lens that provides easy access to many City services. Service delivery at the City today requires constituents to conform to the needs of the City. The City dictates the time and place service is delivered. The web will break down the barriers of time and place, making it possible to deliver City services where and when it’s convenient for the constituent. It will span the bureaucratic layers of the City, offering services based upon user need and not the City’s organization chart.

The proper tools and processes will enable City web managers and content experts to keep information current and relevant. These tools will also be helpful in grouping and accessing information according to user needs or wants.

Increased use of map-based technology (GIS- Geographic Information Systems) gives users the context to make services more meaningful. Constituents could determine the location of the nearest fire station or fire hydrant. They could specify where a street light is burned out or the intersection where an accident occurred. Shared, enterprise-wide GIS services will be economically available to any department that needs to put map-based information and services on the web.

Additional shared infrastructure services will include:

  • a single, secure, economical method to process credit cards
  • a secure network and hosting environment for processing web-based transactions
  • redundant hosting arrangements so the City can stay open for business online should a disaster take place
  • Secure methods for constituents to identify themselves
  • a search engine that returns relevant results

Providing these infrastructure services centrally for the whole City will help save time and money freeing departments to focus on building web applications to meet their customer’s needs.

The web cannot fill a single pothole, but it can be used to report one, schedule a crew to fill it, keep the citizen informed about its status, and report back when the job is complete. This is an example of how the web will be used to empower and meet expectations of constituents while improving the accountability and efficiency of the City.

Strategies for Change

This section describes nine strategies for transforming Seattle.Gov to the improved web site of tomorrow.

Provide a Consistent Look & Feel

Identify different City functions and organizations as belonging to a single enterprise by creating and implementing a strong City of Seattle brand across the entire web site. Encourage compliance with the existing Web Presentation and Accessibility Standards which require the consistent use of standard City headers and footers on all City web pages. Implement a redesign of the standard headers and footers along with the top-level navigation pages.

Simplify the user’s self-service experience by creating standards requiring a consistent user interface to web transactions.

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Improve Content

Serve the needs of constituents by transitioning from a department focus to a service focus where related functions and information are presented or linked together.

Eliminate the current bottleneck created when only technically trained personnel can update web pages by introducing new processes and tools that enable information providers to directly maintain their web information. Apply these processes and tools to the existing content of over 80,000 web pages.

Make information easier to find on the web site by training users how to make their pages accessible via the City’s search engine. Investigate the feasibility of implementing more powerful search technology.

Develop and track performance metrics to determine if efforts to improve content are successful. These might include success rate of user searches, timeliness of information presented on the web site, and number of user complaints.

Implement Self-Service Transactions

Continue to encourage the development of new capabilities for constituents to interact directly with City utility and government processes via the web: service requests, permitting, licensing, tax filing, facilities usage registration, utilities account management and the payment of fees associated with many of these.

Save time and money, and improve security, by designing, building, and managing infrastructure services centrally. Where appropriate, implement standards requiring the use of shared infrastructure services.

Ensure efficiency by re-engineering business processes before automating them. Avoid perpetuating cumbersome processes by eliminating unnecessary steps. Where possible, integrate customer facing applications with work fulfillment systems.

Develop and track performance metrics to determine if the self-service transactions are successful. These might include adoption rates, improved processing time, and customer satisfaction levels.

Leverage Geographic Information Technologies

Widely employ map-driven interfaces to provide a geographic context for constituents’ information needs and service requests. Standardize on a technology and require the use of the standard. Seattle Public Utilities’ project to install a map server accessible via the public internet will help encourage the use of maps as both a source of static information and as an interface to web applications.

Improve Security

Assure constituents and City managers that their information is safe by improving security mechanisms and processes to protect against the malicious use or corruption of constituents’ personal or business information and protect against service-disrupting acts. Keep security and privacy policies and practices up to date and consistent with increasing legislative requirements and external threats. Determine what level of risk the City is willing to take with its information assets considering the threats and the City’s ability to mitigate those risks.

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Create a Customer Support Strategy

Since the web is a 24X7 medium, evaluate requirements for supporting customers who initiate self-service transactions and provide support processes as needed and practical.

Improve Reliability

Maintain and expand automatic fail-over mechanisms and redundancy, and provide alternate processing capabilities as required for a web site that is increasingly used by constituents for interaction with City systems. Consider the “always on” nature of the web and staff infrastructure support as needed and practical.

Revamp Web Governance, Management & Accountability

Govern the web with a group of City executives who can decide policy and influence funding. Assign clear accountability for web content, web site standards, operation and maintenance and provide those accountable with the resources they need to be effective. Develop necessary policies, standards, and direction to encourage the most efficient, cost effective, and secure method for delivering service.

Focus on Value

Avoid implementing technology for its own sake. Encourage those proposing new web applications to describe how City expenses will be reduced and/or how constituent value will be improved.

Include strategies for marketing new web transactions or otherwise achieving high adoption rates as part of web project charters.

Develop performance assumptions and goals and measure and track them to determine if the service should be sustained. Re-evaluate projects after implementation to determine if the benefits outweigh the costs. Cancel projects that do not deliver value.

Conclusion

City departments are preparing to offer significantly more constituent services online. Many of these services involve the transmission and processing of personal and financial information. In preparation, the City must put in place the necessary policy framework, governance structure, and secure reliable infrastructure. It must also insist on real tangible benefits for web projects and measure performance to assure that expectations are realized.

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