I extensively used the online archives of council ruminations and deliberations available on the Wellington City Council website a few years ago when I was conducting research for my thesis. I’ve noticed the website’s design and navigation go through a few changes in recent years but I haven’t paid much attention to what is happening under its skin. As the website won the government category in the 2004 NetGuide Web Awards I thought it was about time to have another look.
The judges were right when they commented that navigation is easy, and there is loads of information. Maps, bylaws, council business and news are just a couple of clicks away. The developers have been very careful not to overload the website with extraneous material that users are forced to wade through.
Finding out how citizens can participate in the council’s business is given lots of visibility. You can’t miss the link to the “Have Your Say!” pages, and the link to the list of submissions open for consultation – called Public Input – is prominent on the homepage. Displaying the main switchboard number on every page emphasises the council is a just a phone call away.
Delving deeper you can find council committee details, and a searchable archive of documents stretching back several years. The archive is a treasure trove, but I have a couple of niggles with the search functionality. Documents go back before 2001, but a drop-down menu used to define search criteria suggests otherwise. And the descriptions for results are practically indecipherable. It is only after you’ve opened a document that you can find out what committee it relates to. As documents are only provided as PDF files, some people may have difficulty accessing them.
As well as all the earnest stuff I really like the picture gallery and quick facts, and the list of links associated with “Play”, which is now my default page for finding out how to find out what is happening around town.
From my perspective the website is very good at meeting the needs of me, as a visitor. The design has undergone a transition from being a plaything for designers to a citizen focused website.
To get an idea of what online community can achieve, look no further than the winner of the youth category in the Webguide awards: IdolBlog. It’s the unofficial fan site of NZ Idol. In the dicussion forum there are hundreds of posts and loads of different people commenting on Ben’s fan club (2,446), rum ours that Ben and Seta are going out (130), and release of Michael’s phone number (733). The events list is packed with appearances by our idols at malls and events, and an up-to-date news page.
Other winners featuring a strong community element were overall winners TradeMe, the online auction website, and lifestyle category winner NZdating.com.
People in community groups sometimes grumble that there are limited opportunities online for interaction between people working in the sector. I don’t think it is the technology or marketing nous that are really the barriers – the above websites demonstrate it is available – but it is the will to participate online.
A recent Wide Area News column Russell Brown focused on IdolBlog and its creators. See: “Idol Hands” (Listener, 4-10 December 2004)