Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bethlehem's Web Page Better Than Originally Thought

Back in June, I rated Lehigh County's local government web pages, including Bethlehem. I kept things objective for once.

Here's how the rating system works. Any local government with a website gets a point. Additional points are awarded for web pages with meeting agendas, minutes, online newsletters, calendars and email contacts (to elected officials only). If the site includes other items designed to inform its citizens or make government more transparent, more points are awarded.

Emmaus, with eight points, was the clear winner. Bethlehem had only four points. There were no email contacts to elected officials, no online newsletter, and its calendar failed to list any public meetings.

Reader RadCenter had the following critique:

Bethlehem recently redesigned its Web site. I used to find a lot more on there than I do now. It's turned into nothing more than an extension of the Chamber of Commerce PR site.

Example: There used to be a map on there that showed a breakdown of per capita income for the different neighborhoods in the city. This was part of a redevelopment project for the west side and northeast that is also no longer mentioned on the site. To attract further development in the wake of the BethWorks project, the leadership in Bethlehem is doing its best to portray the city as a mythical Lake Wobegon: "Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

I forwarded those concerns to Bethlehem's IT department, and received this reply from Blake Kleintop.

First, the site has not been redesigned recently or in the past 4-5 years. The content of the site is updated every day of the work week. The City of Bethlehem's Web site is http://www.bethlehem-pa.gov. Possibly your reader was commenting on a different site?

The City's web site does not promote local businesses, new developments,or the Chamber of Commerce. Could you or your reader clarify what is meant by a "Chamber of Commerce PR site". Of course, we do have a section for the Department of Economic Development, and also users can find business tax forms and permits online.

To your reader's example, the Elm Street Plan is still available on the City's Web site(http://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/dept/planning_Zoning_Permits/elmstreet/report.htm). While the Elm Street Plan for North & West Side Neighborhoods plan was actively being written, it was more prominently displayed on the site. This was 1) to promote awareness and interest in the plan and 2) to solicit comments on the plan.

Since the plan has been completed, it is no longer as prominent. It's obviously unrealistic to prominently display everything the City has ever done. The City has not removed information available on the site unless it was entirely of a timely nature. For example, Job opportunities. Finally, the City maintains a schedule of meetings available here:http://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/city_council/agenda_minutes/schedule.htm

Based on the information Mr. Kleintop was kind enough to provide, I've changed Bethlehem's score to a 5.

Why does this matter?

Bethlehem is also located in Northampton County, and I've just finished rating those web pages. I hope to have that up in the next day or two.


Robin said...

As someone who is very involved with the Elm Street plan, I would like to say that it is currently an ongoing process. the only thing that has been completed is the "vision" put together by the city and their consultants, much of which was out of the scope of the budget and meant to be done in phases. We have subcommittees that are hashing out their own plans and are always looking for more public involvement. It is inappropriate for Blake to suggest otherwise.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Robin, if this plan is not complete, would it be more beneficial to have this plan appear more prominently?

This post has been emailed to Kleintop, and he can resposn to your concerns if he wants.

Robin said...

I think that there is some plan currently to create more web content for the the Elm Street program and hopefully that will have its own prominent space on the website. I am a little concerned with how the original plan recommendations were displayed as they implied that they were a plan that was going to be implemented, when we have known from day one that there was no budget for the sort of improvements suggested in the recommendations. This is why the steering committee and Elm Street manager have really had to turn around and create programs that fit within a reasonable budget so we can make immediate improvements in our West and North Bethlehem communities. Where the website is really lacking, and where many municipal websites are in trouble is in how they are using web interactivity to get citizen input. I think the CNN you-tube debates are a model for how municipalities can start getting feedback from their citizens by simply utilizing the web as a virtual town hall.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Robin, Thanks again for your insight and suggestions. I'll be posting ALL the NC municipalities tomorrow. After waiting for some feedback, I'll do a final post that lists the top local government web pages in the Lehigh Valley.