RPB Discusses Virtues And Pitfalls Of Its Web Site

At a meeting last month, the Royal Palm Beach Village Council discussed the services its web site provides and services available that it does not currently provide.

At the July 17 meeting, Village Manager Ray Liggins said that the topic of how the village communicates with its residents came up during discussions of the village’s strategic plan.

Much of that communication is done through its web site, www.royalpalmbeach.com, so he brought in the village’s site developer CivicPlus, which maintains more than 1,700 municipal web sites across the nation, to have a discussion.

“They really are experts in new technology and communicating with residents, and can share with us some of the things that other people are doing, or not doing,” he said.

He introduced Harlan Bryan, who has been with CivicPlus for eight years and was a trainer when the village’s web site was redesigned four years ago.

Bryan said his company does only government web sites.

“It’s our responsibility and our own personal mandate to make sure that those web sites are the best communication tools for those cities and counties, so that hopefully it will make their jobs inside the office easier, and make it easier for their residents to find the information that they’re looking for,” he said.

Bryan said the sites use the company’s proprietary content management system and outlined many of the services provided. The web site includes:

• A “Contact Us” portal where residents can fill in a web form and submit questions to a specific council member, the entire council or a department, and the recipient receives an e-mail where he can respond directly to the resident.

• A “Notify Me” module that enables the resident to subscribe and receive e-mail and text alerts of village calendar events, employment opportunities, bids/requests for proposals, public notices, canal maintenance schedules and special announcements.

• Facebook and Twitter connections where residents can receive notifications.

• A “Let Us Know” portal where residents can choose from a variety of categories to submit a request, complaint or question. The request is routed to the proper village department. From the site, the residents can log in to the “Citizen Action Center” and monitor their request status.

• The quarterly village newsletter, which is mailed but also available online.

• Channel 18 live and archived meetings, which enables the community to view live and archived public meetings, receive emergency notification alerts, employment opportunities and information about services provided by the village. Channel 18 broadcasts can also be streamed over the Internet and were recently added to AT&T’s Uverse channel lineup.

• “Code Red,” a reverse 911 system used to send critical voice and/or text communications to residents who sign up for the notification services. Messages can include evacuation notices, emergency updates and missing child alerts.

• An online staff phone directory where residents may contact department staff directly on any issue. Calls to the mayor and council are routed to (561) 790-5103.

• The “RPB City Support” mobile app for iPhone and Android. This free app allows residents to do everything from report potholes on their street to a missed trash pickup to an illegally parked car right from their phone. The app allows users to send pictures and track their work orders from their phones or home computer. Issues or questions can be sent directly to the village along with pictures, voice messages and geo-tagged locations.

At the bottom of every web page is the “Contact Us” portal that takes the visitor to the staff directory. Each department listing on the web page also has a staff directory and/or online e-mail form.

“In our studies and our research, one thing that we have discovered is that residents who are coming to a government web site are very task-oriented,” Bryan said. “They have a goal in mind, and their goal is to accomplish that task very quickly, to get in and get out. How you communicate on a web site is very different from how you communicate in print.”

Although printed fliers and posters are fine to be posted on the web site to be printed out by the visitor, the web site should use fewer words than print documents. “In order for them to get to the material they are looking for, you want to make sure its short, sweet and to the point,” Bryan said.

Vice Mayor David Swift asked about the time involved in posting an emergency alert, and Bryan said it depends on how much work the village does in advance.

“For an alert center, it doesn’t take much time to get it activated,” he said. “You can activate an alert in a couple of minutes. It’s just a matter of getting those alerts pre-populated so they are already in.”

Liggins said the services are geared to push information out, and the information coming in currently is predominantly routed through e-mail.

Other services available but not provided on the village web site are more labor-intensive, he said. “Community Voice” is a method for staff to set up ideas that it wants to get public input about.

“It’s an easy way for residents to come and make a comment,” he said. “Comments are monitored and there are bad-word filters in there so people can’t cuss and do whatever they want. It’s geared so they can speak to the topic at hand.”

Swift asked if the site can exercise some control over compulsive naysayers.

“For lack of a better word, I call them Internet trolls, people who basically have nothing better to do but get on the Internet and write negative things,” Swift said. “Whether they’re true or not true, they’re there. How do you control that kind of stuff? It seems like you’re giving them a platform.”

Bryan said the site also gives the residents who are more positive those controls, as well.

“They can mark comments as inappropriate, and when those inappropriate comments are marked, e-mails are generated to the appropriate people who are responsible for those topics at hand, and they can check those topics and terms that they have agreed to when they signed up to post a comment,” he said. “If they violate those terms and agreements, those comments may be removed.”

Councilman Fred Pinto asked about the time in checking and deleting such posts, and Bryan said it was a couple of minutes each check. Liggins said the frequency of checking is the variable.

“Deleting a comment doesn’t take long,” he said. “Doing it 360 times a day does take long.”

Councilman Jeff Hmara asked what the harm was if an inappropriate comment sits there for a while.

“We’re not endorsing a statement like that, are we, by virtue of providing this kind of communications link?” he asked. “I’ve seen locally generated discussion boards. I’ve seen the reactions with responses that might not be appropriate. Interestingly enough, it is self-policing.”

Bryan said “Community Voice” has been growing more popular with other clients.

“What you said about the self-policing is absolutely correct,” he said. “We’ve had several communities come back to us and say there would be negative comments on there, but just as many if not more positive comments about the actual side of the story that is the truth, so it has been a positive thing.”

He said it helps that the program be very direct about the initiatives it wishes to bring forward.

Liggins said they could launch a site as an experiment and see if it actually is self-policing.

Village Attorney Trela White said that although discussion boards are popular, they can become problematic when they are used by an elected official, because there cannot be two-way communication.

“That’s a violation of the Sunshine Law,” White said, adding that e-mail communications are discoverable.

CivicPlus also offers a blog module and an opinion poll.

Liggins pointed out that the modules are available at no additional cost and that the goal of setting up the web site was to get as many transactions as they could through the Internet.

The service has proven invaluable to the residents who use them, as well as staff members who spend less time processing forms and registrations, he said.