NLPES Question of the Month
January- February 2003
HOW HAS YOUR AGENCY'S WEB SITE IMPROVED YOUR WORK AND YOUR ABILITY TO SERVE THE PUBLIC?
Ken Levine, Texas Sunset Advisory Commission
We receive a considerable number of positive comments about our website. Not so much as to its design, or ease of use (though we do get some of those) but most commentors are grateful for the easy access to our reports and other materials.
We post agencies' self-evaluation reports that each agency under review prepares before our staff analysis begins. Of course, we post our staff report once it is completed. Since our Commission meets to hear public testimony about our report and the agency under review, and to make decisions on recommendations, we also provide summary materials reflecting that activity. Citizens appreciate this because many agencies post reports, but rarely post any subsequent activity.
We also provide a link to the live webcast of meetings of the Sunset Commission, as well as links to archived audio webcasts. Again, we have received positive feedback about providing this service (particularly considering Texas is quite large and all of our Commission's formal meetings are held in Austin.)
Finally, during the Legislative Session, we provide links to the bills and status information on the bills, including hearings. Again, we want to be sure a person in El Paso (about a ten hour drive from Austin) can follow what is happening to a Sunset bill here in Austin.
We have seen a reduction in the quantity of reports requested, therefore providing a small savings in printing costs. I believe we also receive less general information phone calls, as people can often get answers to many questions on the website.
We do provide a "feedback" form for people to provide us with input about the agencies under review. This can range from simple complaints to discussions of eliminating programs. As with written and email correspondence, all information is used in the assessment of an agency and its functions.
Our website can be found at: http://www.sunset.state.tx.us/
Rick Riggs, Kansas
As a small shop, we have just one webmaster (me). The site has a lot of information, but is simple html--very few graphics, no frames, Java, or no fancy effects. Initially, several years ago, this simplicity was to accommodate users with slow connections or older computers. Now, with the federal accessibility guidelines (which Kansas has adopted), I find I have relatively little rework or retrofitting to do.
We don't have our own server, so we have less control than I would like over things like scripting, doing surveys, and other things that involve adding code to the server. Our site is hosted by the State's official ISP, and, although those folks are very cooperative and nice to work with, their small development staff means that any special projects for us sit in the pipeline for 60-90 days, too long for things like putting up an survey and aggregating the responses. We hope to get our own web server in the next couple of years, but maintaining our own server has its own complications.
Without a doubt, having a website has reduced the number of report copies we send out. We make all reports available on the web within a few hours of their release, as well as minutes and agendas for the audit committee's meetings. We post staff vacancies, and we've had many job applicants cite the vacancy notice on the website when they apply. We post information for agencies that may not have experience with our office, telling what we do and how we do it, and what they can expect from the audit process. We also post information for legislators on the audit process and how to request an audit, and we provide access to audit reports from other states through the National State Auditors Association search engine.
Mark Hennessey, New York
The New York State Assembly website is a terrific way to reach the public -- its bill search abilities are terrific. Having copies of reports on the web has enabled us to say things like "well if you want to see the report today, its available on the web." That's really a great advantage when time is important. We also have biographic information on members and maps of districts which I think are terrific as well. All in all, the web allows us to better (and more quickly) serve our members, as well as the public and that is really terrific.
Sylvia Hensley, California
The primary function of our web site is to provide online access to our audit reports. In addition, our web site offers an online request form, which the public can use to order hard copies of the reports. Whenever we release a report, we post the report on our web site that same morning and promptly send an e-mail notification to our state legislators, as well as to any individuals who have subscribed for our e-mail announcement service. We currently have 470 subscribers for this service.
We do not have definitive statistics as to whether hard copy requests have decreased due to web-site availability. However, an analysis of our monthly web-site logs shows that our reports are downloaded at an equal or greater number than the hard copy requests. Some anecdotal evidence, such as the number of complaint calls we receive when there is a problem uploading a newly published audit onto the site, also suggests that our online reports may be more popular.
Our major web-site project at this time is to ensure that it meets current accessibility guidelines for the disabled.
Finally, we also use our site as a recruiting tool. We post information about current openings, career opportunities, and employment qualifications. In additional, interested applicants can download an application as well as a writing test. One project we're working on for our web site is a photo tour of our offices.
(This response was prepared by David Madrigal of our administrative staff, who among other things is responsible for maintaining our Web site.)
Tim Osterstock, Utah
The website for the Office of the Utah Legislative Auditor General is a basic site that has been up and running for a number of years. The primary purpose is to get our reports out on the web as quickly as possible for those who simply must have a report immediately. The primary website users appear to be the news media and aggressively interested parties. Oddly, there has been no decline in the demand for printed reports.
Originally we developed our own website that included pictures of all the staff. This practice ended when the page was tied to the Utah Legislature's home page. Apparently the Legislature didn't think that we were that photogenic-a wise decision. Another by-product of subjugating to the legislative page is the loss of web page information. Hits on our site are far less than the parent site and, as such, do not rank high enough to be listed consistently. When they are listed we find that a report release will generate over 1000 hits in its first week.
Jim Pellegrini, Montana
The web site for our agency has accomplished what all web sites have done so well and that is provide a quicker and more expansive communication tool. The organization of the site allows for a wide selection of options. The user can travel from sections that include access to reports, work in progress, publications, and budget information to the laws for the state of Montana. Committee agendas, proposed legislation, bill tracking, hearings calendars, legislator information, and legislator schedules are all available. Users can create preference lists of legislation and the system tracks those bills specifically, and reports on their status each time the user logs on to the password protected preference site. There are communication links to all staff and legislators through e-mail or telephone numbers. Users can read and download reports and/or summaries. A SEARCH option allows for quick access to all documents.
The web site has not been used to solicit public input on specific items or to conduct surveys. We still are debating the objectivity and usefulness of such input. The posting of reports on the site has reduced the number of hard copy reports we have needed to produce. We are also posting job listings and contract audit information on the site.
We also maintain an intranet capability using our web browser to record staff checking in and out of the office and as a separate message system for IT staff to communicate on technical items.
Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability (OPPAGA), from Jenny Wilhelm
OPPAGA's website, the Florida Monitor (www.oppaga.state.fl.us/) contains electronic files of all OPPAGA work products for downloading as well as information about OPPAGA. It has given us a better presence with our legislators, as we can tell them to go to our website for reports on topics they are interested in.
Our staff uses it in different ways. For example, they use it to find previous reports and to conduct preliminary research on a topic, and as a link to send to colleagues and others who have questions about some aspect of Florida government. It's a ready source of information that we have already written; it assures us of some consistency between reports, especially in our School District Best Financial Management Practice reviews initiative.
Our site receives on average, 9,600 visits and 40,000 page requests per week.
Our web site's best--or most unique-features:
Included in our website is the Florida Government Accountability Report (www.oppaga.state.fl.us/government/), an Internet electronic encyclopedia containing descriptive and evaluative information on major state programs. It's a good resource for familiarizing oneself with programs, and for answering constituent requests.
The site also includes the Florida Monitor Weekly (www.oppaga.state.fl.us/weekly/default.asp), a free electronic newsletter highlighting OPPAGA publications and other reports from our state Legislature, state and federal government reports, think tank research, website resources, and other sources for policy research and program evaluation. OPPAGA provides this weekly publication as an information service to bring attention to issues of interest to Florida policy makers. However, we also have a variety of representatives of other organizations subscribed to the site, including the press, universities, and the private sector.
Use of the web site to solicit public input or to conduct surveys?
We have conducted a variety of surveys using our website. We have found, as with any survey mode, that you have to know your audience to determine if a web survey is the best way to gather the information.
We also have solicited draft report input using our website. However, it wasn't public comment; we used a method to only have interested parties comment on drafts.
Have postings of reports on the web site reduced the number of hard copy reports we produce?
Yes. We now can tell people to go to our website to get the report. We are finding that there are quite a few people who would rather get our reports electronically. We continually assess our need to produce the number of hard copy reports of our products.
Possible future uses of the web site:
In the near future: We will redesign the interface to give the site a more updated look and create more database-generated pages to reduce the amount of work it takes to produce the site.
Long-range additions: We hope to develop ways to "push" content to users so they get what they want delivered to them.
However, we must be cautious with the amount of automation, as the site needs to be accessible for people with disabilities and for people who do not have the most advanced computer setups.
Wisconsin office response, from Kate Wade
Best--or most unique-features of our web site:
- What's New: This feature allows one to see our latest report releases upon entering the site.
- Audits in Progress: Visitors to the site report positively on being able to quickly identify current projects, a contact person for each project, and the expected release date.
- Search: A site-specific Search feature allows users to find information quickly and easily.
- Audio Link: A link to internet audio-broadcasts of meetings of the agency's oversight committee, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, is included on the site for enhanced public access to the Committee proceedings.
Use of the web site to solicit public input or to conduct surveys:
We've conducted one online survey via our web site. It was directed toward public employees known to have web access - local government webmasters.
There were a number of advantages in conducting the survey online.
- The survey could be completed at the respondents' convenience, but within the audit timeline.
- The survey was constructed to direct a respondent to more detailed questions only as appropriate, given their responses to earlier questions; for some respondents, this reduced the amount of time necessary to complete the survey.
- Related to survey construction, getting the respondents through the survey quickly helped to improve the survey response rate.
- Responses in the web site survey were automatically sent to an Access database, eliminating the need to do data entry. Some responses were structured to require the correct type of data entry, e.g., numerical information as opposed to text.
- Because we were able to track responses, we could follow-up with those individuals who had not responded. This follow-up was automated - one e-mail was crafted and a mailing was sent simultaneously to all non-respondents. When clarification or additional information was needed, respondents were contacted individually.
We have conducted two other surveys by e-mail, in that questions were part of the email text message. Respondents replied by hitting the reply button. Responses were then entered by our staff to an Access database. While entry to the Access database took staff time, designing the e-mail survey was considerably quicker and less staff intensive than writing the code for the web-based survey.
Have postings of reports on the web site reduced the number of hard copy reports we produce?
Demand for hard-copy of our reports remains high, but we've seen a reduction in after-release hard copy requests - likely the result of individuals locating the report on the site and printing it. Some individuals will visit the site, locate the project of interest, and request e-mail notification when the report is released, thereby potentially reducing demand for hard-copy.
Future uses of the web site:
The functional elements of our site are strong, but we will continue to respond to legislative interests. Our principal products, reports and letters, can be located easily and quickly, site navigation is clear, and the search function provides additional help to visitors.
Joel Alter, Minnesota
The most obvious benefit of our web site is improved public access to our reports. We put our reports on our web site one hour before they are officially released, and this has reduced the number of requests we've received for reports. In many cases, newspaper articles on our reports list the web site where the reports can be found.
Our web site sometimes supplements the published reports with related information not available in the reports. For instance, the web site sometimes has links to technical appendices or more detailed survey results than we put in the published report. In some cases, we have posted memos that we prepared for legislative committees in response to questions about our reports. The web site also has copies of the Powerpoint slides we used in our report presentations.
In addition, our web site has buttons that people can used to (1) suggest a topic for an audit, evaluation, or best practices report, or (2) get e-mail notification of upcoming reports.
During the past three years, we have done quite a few Internet surveys using our web site. These are not surveys of general users of our web site. Rather, for particular studies, we identify a survey sample and provide the sample members with a private web address where our survey form can be accessed. In some cases, we have relied exclusively on web responses-not even sending out a hard-copy of the survey form. Designing web-based surveys takes some care (e.g., to ensure that people with different types of browsers don't have difficulty accessing the survey), but they can definitely expedite the survey process by eliminating much of the time previously devoted to data entry.
In the future, I hope we can make more use of our web site for transmission of confidential data. Our office has adopted a policy against transmitting (or having agencies transmit to us) confidential data or documents via e-mail or fax. (We adopted this policy because of concerns about the security of these transmissions.) It is possible to set up secure sites within our web site-for example, if we wish to send or receive a confidential draft of a document. But our IT staff are still working out some bugs in this, so we haven't used it much so far.