AuburnAlabama.org has been recognized by Juggle as one of the top city government websites in the state of Alabama. Below you'll find an interview with David Dorton, Director of Public Affairs for the City of Auburn.
- AuburnAlabama.org is a top-notch web portal; what has been your role in its development?
I came to the City of Auburn as an intern in Auburn University’s Public Administration graduate program, but spent several years in the Information Technology Department before returning to the Office of the City Manager. In IT, I was responsible for the web site, and one of my last acts in IT was to redesign the site to give it its current look and feel. IT now has a new web programmer, and as Director of Public Affairs, I’m still involved in the overall content of the site.
- Can you summarize the history of Auburn's web portal?
Auburnalabama.org was born in the late 90’s, and has always been conceived of as an information portal for our citizens about what’s happening in city government. When the site came into being, some City sites were focusing on elements that we felt were best covered by the Chamber of Commerce or the Tourism Bureau. The thinking was that we should present information about what City government was doing, from Council meetings to street paving and trash pickup, so that interested citizens could stay informed.
- What are the overarching objectives of Auburn's current e-government initiatives?
We want all of our e-gov initiatives to enhance the transparency and openness of City government by providing as much information as possible about City government. We want to enable citizens to stay well informed, and to be able to use the web site to get information as easily through the web as they can by calling or visiting City Hall. Citizens can access not only City Council agendas and minutes, but the entire packet the Council receives, almost as quickly as the Council receives it. Citizens can subscribe to our eNotifier system and receive press releases at the same time as the media. Our Facebook and Twitter followers receive links to press releases and web announcements when they are made. There are thousands of pages of information online, including the budget document reviewed and approved by City Council, the City Code, our Auburn 2020 plan, and more.
- From a marketing standpoint, what are some of the strategies that you have utilized to draw attention to the information and services provided by AuburnAlabama.org, both on- and off-line?
We produce a monthly print newsletter for citizens which goes out with water bills and is also available online and at City facilities. Each issue contains several links back to the City’s web site for more information on the issues discussed. On Facebook and Twitter, most of the content posted links back to the City’s website. Press releases are sent through our e-Notifier rather than via conventional methods, and many of the releases the media receives contain links back to the website for more content. We try to keep the focus on the website as the core place to go for information on what’s happening with City government and City projects.
- How has citizen feedback influenced the development of Auburn's e-government services?
The City of Auburn has long conducted an annual citizen survey which includes questions to gauge how we’re doing with our e-Gov offerings and overall communications. This survey also collects demographic information telling us what percentage of citizens have broadband internet access, which helps us tailor our offerings. We do keep an eye on usage statistics and of citizen feedback via email, on the phone and in person. The citizen survey and citizen input in general help City management tailor budget and service priority, and the same is true of our e-Gov and communications priorities.
- What is the most-used feature or service on the site?
Our online job applications, the City Council packet and the eNotifier are some of the most visited areas of our web site.
One area that has grown by leaps and bounds is Geographical Information Services. Through auburnalabama.org/maps, citizens and visitors can see a detailed map of the City limits which includes an aerial photography layer and layers for streets, addresses, parcels, votings wards, school zones and more. Also available is a street routing map to help motorists plan efficient routes, and find their way around construction and detours. Citizens can use the Veteran’s Memorial Brick archive to see the location of each brick installed in the park to honor our veterans. GIS is really a shining light in how our web site has evolved in recent years. Our GIS division, led by Chris Graff, is a component of the Information Technology Department, lead by Assistant City Manager/Chief Information Officer Jim Buston.
- In what way has harnessing social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) allowed you to connect more directly and personally with the citizens of Auburn?
We just passed the 2,000 mark for Facebook followers, and each of these citizens has an opportunity to comment on our posts, which gives us an opportunity to interact with them if they need or want more information. The traditional outlets are still there – the newspaper and television both give us opportunities to provide information for their audience. Our newsletter gives us a chance to give information to any citizen who pays a water bill. The website is available to anyone in the world who will use it. In a way social media is unique. Facebook could be likened to a room in which you can shout something to 2,000 people. And they don’t have to come to us – once they “like” the City of Auburn on Facebook, our updates show up in their newsfeed. Similarly, Twitter updates will be seen by followers whenever they go to their Twitter account. So even when we’re not directly interacting, social media makes it easier for folks to get information from the City by just going to their social media account as they normally do.
- How has hosting and streaming webcams and Channel 16 video helped engagement with the website?
One of our webcams is pointed straight at the University side of Toomer’s Corner, which is a location known by anyone who knows Auburn or Auburn football. At this corner is the tree which receives the brunt of victory celebrations in the form of toilet paper. We definitely see a spike in web traffic after football games, as people check out this webcam.
Channel 16 is the local PEG channel provided by one of our cable companies. While the City controls the channel, it is mostly utilized by Auburn City Schools, which has ambitious media production programs for students. So on the web or on TV, citizens have the opportunity to see a wealth of programming by and about the school system and students, and it also provides an outlet for City announcements if there were an emergency situation where community-wide communication were critical.
- In developing the Auburn website what were some of the obstacles that had to be overcome? How did you surpass them?
Scarcity of resources is always the challenge in government, and in life in general. Websites take time and personnel to maintain, both on the technical and content sides. I think the key is to have the right team of people to make each piece of the puzzle fit into place.
- Where do you see e-government heading in the next 2-3 years? Are there any exciting new features or services currently in the works for Auburn's web portal?
As technology progresses, governments will have to evolve to account for an increasing reliance on mobile devices for information and the web. “App” is the buzzword of the day, and I imagine that cities will more commonly have iPhone or Android apps to ask questions, report problems or receive information. More people will be reading municipal publications and documents on Kindles, tablets and telephones, and which will affect file formats and document formatting.
One of our biggest initiatives at the moment are behind the scenes, with a new Content Management System being put into place so that City departments can update their content without needing a web programmer. Another very cool initiative is in the GIS area. The next release for GIS will be a “Tiger Trail” application that allows people to go online to locate and see each of the plaques embedded in downtown sidewalks to honor greats in Auburn athletics over the years.
As always, we’ll strive to keep our e-gov offerings current for citizens, current with technology, and will always be looking for how best to increase the utility of these offerings for everyone who uses them.
- What else that you would like to tell us about AuburnAlabama.org?
Credit where credit is due. Much of the philosophy behind our website was developed by Chief Information Officer Jim Buston, former City Manager Doug Watson and current City Manager Charlie Duggan. I spent a few years “programming” HTML and CSS, and the site design still reflects that work, but our current web programmer, Chris Shaw, has done a lot of work to streamline our content and is currently working on a Content Management System to make it easier for every department to maintain up to date content on the web. Chris Graff and our GIS Division are a key component behind some of the most innovative offerings of the site.
What we really want is a site that is useful and informative for citizens, so we always welcome input on what folks who are using the web would like to see.