My wife and I had the good fortune to have been stranded in Blue Earth, Minnesota, during a blizzard last month. I say good fortune because we were just able to make it to a motel before the roads became impassable. Quite a few travelers were not as lucky, and ended up spending the night at the National Guard Armory in Albert Lea, or, worse, in their cars in ditches along I-90.
For those readers unfamiliar with Blue Earth, the community’s claim to fame is a statue of the Jolly Green Giant. Even if we had been in the mood to do some sightseeing, the weather was so bad that we were unable to navigate the two blocks necessary to see the iconic statue.
With no entertainment options, my focus shifted to the motel’s Business Center, which was contained entirely on a single desk in the lobby. It featured a desktop computer and small but eclectic lending library, including several “Curious George” books and Adam Smith’s classic “The Wealth of Nations.” I will not tell you which book I read.
As the hotel filled up, I assumed that the Business Center would be in high demand. Surely, other guests would want to work and, like me, would surmise that they would be far more productive using a computer with a proper monitor, mouse and keyboard. I could not have been more wrong. I was, in fact, the only person to use the Business Center during my two days at the motel. Everyone else sat in the breakfast nook or around the fake fireplace staring at their smart phones. While the majority of these folks were probably streaming Netflix, I considered the possibility that they possessed better vision, dexterity and concentration than I did, and that they, like me, were producing emails and documents. One fact was abundantly clear: I was the outlier in terms of my choice of technology.
We eventually made it out of Blue Earth, but I was reminded of my status as a technology outlier just a few days later. I was meeting with a consultant who is overseeing the redesign of the county’s website. Our current website was developed years ago by our own Information Technology (IT) staff. While it has been maligned in recent years because it looks cluttered and features few photos, I have always defended it. Its lack of style, in my opinion, is more than offset by its content. While you will not find a full-screen photo of the sun setting over the Government Center, you can find our complete 2019 budget book or the 2015 budget, for that matter.
The question of whether to upgrade our website is a foregone conclusion. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that web pages be accessible to folks with disabilities. A user who is visually impaired, for example, has the right to hear content that is posted on a website through the use of a screen reader that is built into Windows software. This requires that web content be uploaded in formats that are compatible with the accessibility tools.
I get the importance of ADA compliance, and that goal will be accomplished when our site is relaunched later this year. It was some of the other suggestions made by our consultant that gave me pause. These included:
Archived content. Our consultant explained that the vast majority of users are interested in current information and that we should think long and hard before importing years’ worth of old committee minutes into the new system. Our access statistics certainly support the consultant’s position. Property tax inquiries, employment searches and juror status pages are far more popular pages than old proceedings books. I always figured there was no harm keeping the old stuff online as long as it was organized, which it is. Members of the public do access this information from time to time. If, however, we will need to pay to reformat all of our archives into ADA accessible files, we will need to weigh the cost of doing so versus the benefit of having this old information accessible on the internet.
Smart phone friendly. I never really thought about it, but it is easier to scroll through pages on a smart phone than it is to click on links to load new content. No argument from me here. If I learned one thing from my Blue Earth experience, it was that more people are using smart phones than traditional computers.
Intuitive directory. Our current website presumes some familiarity with county government. If you want to get a variance for a new deck, you need to know that our Land Use and Resources Management (LURM) department processes zoning requests, or that the County Clerk issues marriage licenses. The redesigned website will de-emphasize department names and focus on the types of services that we provide.
Design. While I do not want to set out to make an ugly website, my strong bias is to build a site that emphasizes content over style. I think too many local governments shoot to create web pages to accomplish multiple goals such as customer service, business attraction and tourism promotion, and end up striking out on all three. I am not sure how many people visit local government web pages when planning a vacation. Directing residents to the services they need as efficiently as possible needs to be our priority.
The new web page is scheduled to roll out this fall. In the meantime, if you want to watch a video of an April 16, 2013, finance committee meeting, visit us at www.co.walworth.wi.us.
David Bretl is the county administrator for Walworth County. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.