Municipal Webmasters Hash Out Problems at PTI Confab

CHICAGO -- Webmasters from across the country are discovering that politics -- not necessarily hardware, software or technical help -- rules in the uncharted world of building an electronic city hall.

City and county Webmasters met here last week to hash out common problems and solutions to meet the growing demand -- from inside and outside government -- for more municipal services to be made available via the World Wide Web.

The occasion was an all-day workshop hosted by Public Technology Inc. as part of its annual membership conference. PTI (www.pti.org) is the technology arm of the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the International City/County Management Association.

The Webmasters seemed to agree that the single most important ingredient to success in moving city services onto the Web is commitment from top political brass.

Mike Ross, manager of online services for Boston (www.cityofboston.com), listed "commitment from the top" as the first item in a formula for success in the city's project to enable citizens to pay their excise takers over the Internet.

In its first week, the city took in about $20,000 in excise taxes via the program, which the city paid about $26,000 to develop. Ross, who described the project along with city senior Internet developer Kyle Tager, said Mayor Thomas Menino's commitment was a key driver behind the program. Likewise, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's commitment to Web-enabled government is instrumental in the ongoing development of New York City Link (www.ci.nyc.ny.us). The site -- through which citizens can contact city officials directly; transmit complaints for taxi, consumer affairs and cable service; and get detailed information about operating a business in the city -- extends the mayor's bully pulpit: Same-day transcripts of speeches made by the mayor are made available via the site.

Helene Heller, director of business development for the city's Office of New Media, said that to strengthen political and organizational support for the site, senior-level "communications liaisons" were created at 75 agencies to coordinate all Web activities, "certify content and enhance service delivery." Although getting department heads behind the Web has been a challenge in some cases, others are starting to brag to each other at cabinet meetings about how many hits their agencies are getting, Heller noted.

Of course, questions of politics are pervading other areas of municipal Web development. City of Chicago Webmaster Katy Harington said the city had concluded that it would not -- at least for now -- accept advertising on the city's Web site, in part because policies covering who could and could not be allowed to advertise have not been worked out. Harington pointed out that in city government, "the line is fuzzy" on the question of who has control over content -- city officials or public users. At the moment, offering advertising "would make that line even fuzzier."

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