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Local government online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 29, 2004
(Issue 2244, A Computer in Every Room)

It was a conversation with Vista Assistant City Manager Rick Dudley at our sons' Boy Scout meeting that prompted this week's look at how local governments implement their online presence.

Dudley made the point that the city of Vista can save labor costs over the long haul by providing as much information and as many services as possible online – thus reducing the number of citizens who must come into City Hall to conduct city business.

And so as this is written, Vista is in the midst of redesigning its Web site. While we'll take a look at the Vista site later in this column, we'll also revisit in a few months when the new site is launched.

In an open society such as ours, ultimately just about everything the government does is public. There are exceptions, of course – juvenile criminal proceedings, for instance, or custody hearings, in order to protect the young.

And some local agencies have found that providing all public records online leads to problems – for instance, when property tax records are simply listed online, or police accident reports, insurance firms and ambulance-chasing lawyers can mine that information for mass mailings much easier than if they have to come to the police station or county records department to look up that information manually.

So there is a balance between ensuring that the public can easily get access to the information to which it has a right and protecting the privacy of those individuals who are forced to have their personal information entered into the public record – by buying a house or becoming a crime victim or one of the myriad other ways modern living causes us to intersect with public bureaucracy.

But even given the above caveats, clearly more and more governments – even at the most local level – are moving as much of their public services online as they can.

The big dogs

Locally, the County and City of San Diego are the two largest agencies by far.

The county's Web site is pretty well-designed and easy to navigate. It's not the most intuitive navigation system on earth, but the amount of information is deep and impressive. And on the page you get to by clicking on Working>For People on their main navbar, there is the most comprehensive list of links to local media – publications and broadcast stations – I've yet seen for the region.

On the other hand, finding out how to contact the Sheriff's Department isn't nearly as easy as it should be. You have to click on Government from the main navbar, then scroll down to the S listings. And I still couldn't tell you whether you can pay your property taxes online or not.

Good site, but needs some fine-tuning to make it more user-friendly.

The city of San Diego doesn't have nearly as glitzy or slick an appearance as the county's, but it is exponentially easier to use. In the upper left-hand corner of the city's home page is a list of a couple dozen quick links under the header "I want to ..." The first item here? Pay your water bill online. Bingo – that's exactly what a municipal Web site should offer – ease of use for the taxpayers and citizens.

There's some seemingly dopey stuff in that list ("Prepare for an emergency," "Subscribe to Neighborhood eWatch"), but also good, useful links like renewing your library book, purchasing a parking meter card or get a business license. And the truth is, it's unlikely the seemingly dopey links would have been added if those weren't regular, popular requests.

The second tier

Most of the other, larger cities in the county – Chula Vista, Oceanside, La Mesa, Escondido – also have prominent, useful Web sites.

Escondido has a lot of information, but not much in the way of conducting city business online. It is well-designed, though, and easy to find your way around.

Oceanside is similar in look, feel and functionality to Escondido. Again, there doesn't seem to be any way to conduct city business online – although the planning department does have the various city forms available as a printable PDF. Still, an online form would be even better!

La Mesa is a step above Escondido and Oceanside in terms of Web presence. There seems to be significantly more information available, and there is some real interactivity happening here. You can sign up for e-mail alerts when the city announces contract bids, for instance – a useful tool for area contractors. And, as with Oceanside, most city forms seem to be available as a printable PDF.

Chula Vista is comparable to La Mesa in terms of depth and usability. There were tons of forms already available, and a note saying more are being added. In appearance, it is probably the most impressive visually and graphically – there are Fortune 500 companies with Web sites that don't look this nice.

As to the Vista page that got all this started, it can be found at In its not-yet-redesigned version it is a bit low-tech. The main navigation bar is fine, but the in-page navigation is conducted through overly large and cheese icons. It almost hurts to look at it!

As far as the information goes, it's tough to find your way around. For instance, after you click on Department Listing, all of the departments listed appear the same – but only some are linked. That's got to drive people crazy.

But we'll be back in a few months and take a look at where Vista ends up with their new site.