Digital citizenship

Not so long ago, paying parking tickets or fees or getting permits from the city of Asheville or Buncombe County involved a trip (or two) downtown. But increasingly, that’s not the case, thanks to the extensive “e-gov” functions now available on both the city and county Web sites.

Asheville 2.0: City of Asheville IT Services Director Jonathan Feldman, who oversaw the revamp of the city’s Web site, in the bowels of the server. Photos By Jonathan Welch

These sites (ashevillenc.gov and buncombecounty.org) also contain a wide range of information about local government, including the minutes of City Council and Board of Commissioners meetings (the city site even provides video coverage). Together, these offerings represent the beginning of a far-reaching change in the way area residents interact with their government.

All this is a fairly recent development. Although the county Web site has included some e-gov functions since 2002, many more were added during a 2005 overhaul, and the city site was retooled in March of this year. Both redesigns had similar goals.

“We redid it from the citizen’s perspective,” Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes explains. “We tried to make it so you wouldn’t have to jump through a lot of hoops or do a lot of interacting with county government to get where you needed to be.”

Asheville had the same idea. “The redesign was done with the citizen’s perspective in mind,” notes IT Services Director Jonathan Feldman. “Before, you had to know something about the city’s departments, how they worked and what was under what. Now that’s not the case.”

Instead, the city’s site sports a main bar that groups the various functions under “Residents, Visitors, Business, Government” and “News & Events.” A pop-up “How do I?” menu on the left lists such tasks as “bid on city projects?” and “file a housing-code complaint?” A “News & Events” sidebar on the right provides timely information.

Countywide: Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes says that e-gov has put Buncombe County “light years ahead of where we were before.”

The county site’s main page sports four buttons on the right—labeled “Governing, Doing Business, Living Here” and “Visiting Us.” “What’s Happening in Buncombe” features a changing list of topics, such as “Where is your will stored?”

But that’s just the beginning, says Hughes. “We’re going to expand the number of things you can pay for with your credit card—septic-tank permits, for example. We’re also looking into a shopping-cart-style function like many retail Web sites have, where you can pay for several permits or fees in one go.” A video stream tied to the county’s cable-TV channel should be in place by late 2008 or early 2009, says Hughes; and in the meantime, the entire site is due for another face-lift early next year. “It’s a good idea to change the look every couple of years,” she notes.

The city isn’t standing pat either. There are plans to add more live video and improve the site’s interactive development map. A similar “crime mapper” is also in the works. “It will allow you to narrow it down by neighborhood, by area, and see what’s going on,” Feldman explains.

It’s all part of a larger trend that he doesn’t see stopping anytime soon. “This is an essential part of modern government,” Feldman maintains. “The more services we can offer through the Web, the more money and time it saves us and the taxpayers.”

Some users, however, have reported consistent problems with pop-up menus on the city site that won’t go away, making it hard to use. “Our Beta version didn’t have that,” explains IT staffer Jeff Reble. “We actually added that feature to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act. … Small issues like this do crop up, and we’re working to fix it.”

Hughes, a longtime Buncombe County staffer, remembers when the county’s Web site was still fairly new and most things had to be done manually. “Oh my, it’s put us light years ahead of where we were then,” she says with a laugh. “Before 2002, all the Web site had was information; everyone had to come downtown to pay. They had to find a parking spot; often they were tired or stressed by the time they got where they needed to be. That’s not the case anymore. It saves everyone a lot of hassle.”

A boon for activists

The impact of e-gov goes far beyond making it easier to pay bills. The area’s wide-ranging activist community has not been slow to grasp the advantages these new assets offer.

“I find the newly revamped city of Asheville Web site to be very useful,” says libertarian blogger and activist Tim Peck. “It’s simple, elegant and easy to use. It contains a wealth of information that is well-organized.” The county site, however, “needs work; it looks and feels old. Still, it’s a valuable resource, especially for meeting agendas and background documentation.”

Political blogger Paul Van Heden of www.brainshrub.com agrees. Both sites, he says, “are intuitive enough for even beginners to use. In the rare case where a document can’t be found, local government is not shy about posting a phone number to a human civil servant who will help.”

Be the media: Libertarian blogger Tim Peck, who says e-gov, YouTube and blogs have given the average citizen more sway.

This is a marked difference “from the old days,” Van Heden notes. “If an individual wanted to research an issue, she had to know where to ask, how to use the government’s file system and, most importantly, have enough leisure time to sift through potentially thousands of documents before finding relevant information.

“Technology has flattened these obstacles significantly. Thanks to indexed databases accessible through the Internet, average citizens have the same ability to research, compile and distribute information that was once only available to a seasoned professional reporter.”

Peck says he particularly likes the city site’s video archive. “I can now easily review portions of [Council] meetings without waiting for reruns on TV or getting clarification secondhand,” he reports.

Technology, says Peck, has made “an enormous change in the circulation of news and information” that has broad implications for both activists and the community at large.

“I can announce an event or meeting on the mailing list, research the issues from local or worldwide sources, get feedback from others in the community who are knowledgeable,” he notes—all before attending the meeting. Once there, “armed with notes compiled from e-mails, bloggers and online media sources,” the activist says he can “film or photograph the event, place the pictures or film on the Web when I get home, and then distribute notes, links, pictures and film to the community through e-mail, my blog or other blogs”—all before bedtime.

National sites are also getting a piece of the local-government action. YouTube, for instance, has featured its share of City Council footage, some of it posted by Peck himself. The most notorious example to date, sparked by this summer’s brouhaha over partisan elections, is Mayor Terry Bellamy‘s ejection of local radio host Matt Mittan from the July 10 Council meeting for speaking out of order, which leads all Asheville City Council clips with more than 1,200 views to date.

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