Philadelphia: City website rates a “C”

City of Philadelphia:

Transparency:  I knew I was in trouble when I clicked on “City Council” at the Philadelphia City website and a new window open upon a different and more primitive website.  There is no good reason why the city council should have its own website.  Worse, the home page contains two introductory paragraphs that in no way help citizens orient themselves or determine whether they are getting the information they need from the webpage.  Videotapes of past meetings?  Yes. but after waiting a half hour, a session hadn’t loaded. These videos are not connected to the collection of Council minutes or agendas.  There are separate, cumbersome search pages for those.  “C”

Feedback: Philadelphia has made it possible to both fill out reports on a variety of health and safety issues from sanitation to abandoned vehicles to narcotics complaints.  They even have a search mechanism to look up existing forms.   They provide more opportunities to engage its citizens about routine reporting matters than any site I’ve seen.  Some of the forms provide navigational aids as you fill them in showing an informative breadcrumb trail as you fill in the various screens.  However, not all the form employ the same approach which leads to confusion.  Also, I noticed that some forms were extremely detailed which defeats the purpose of web-based reporting which should provide a start of the reporting process not its completion and should encourage people to fill out the form on the web not discourage them by making them spend a half an hour filling out a form.  “B+”

Richness of information:  I look for an office of City Planning that would involve building issues.  It wasn’t easy though there was a long drop down list of city departments.  Finally, I found it under “Department of Public Property.”  The description for this department claims its responsible for building city property as well as related functions.   This page contains the “mission” which describes what this department does and a “news” section which says, “check back soon!”   I think sites that do that are lame.  Just hide the section.  Why point out to users that you haven’t got your act together?  And what is “soon?”  Tomorrow?   Next week or next month?  2011?  My guess is that if I check back in February I’ll see that same sentence with the exclamation mark and I will think this department double lame. 

But that’s not the only problem with this page.  The left sidebar contains a series of links which aren’t helpful in breaking down the various functions that a city property department handles.  Instead it lists things like, “Art in Philadelphia” and “Real Estate” and “Visual Philly.”  What about links organized around “planning”  “maintainence” “building” ? The right side bar has more links but they are to things like streaming video to the public access channel and “Visual Philly” which is also listed on the other side.  I have a feeling these links aren’t specific to this department and don’t help further education the user as what this department does.  “D”

Transacting business:   I’m still shaking my head over this one.   A common function for a city is licensing its businesses and making it easy to collect their taxes.  But Philadelphia doesn’t make it easy for the user to find where to go for a general business license or how to engage online with the city to fill it out.  From the home page there is a link called “Business.”  I clicked on that link and at the top of that page is something called, “Business News Headlines” which isn’t and then as I scroll down the page I find several links that might allow me to license my business.  However, none of them make it easy for to determine first, if they are the right link or second, provide a subsequent page that makes me believe I’m on the right track.  I either get very specific information about downloading a variety of very specific but irrelevant forms or I get punted to a different department where I have to start all over.  (Just like in the real, bureaucratic world.) 

If I go back to the home page after abandoning the “Business” link I see on the left sidebar a list of licenses links but none of them are related to licensing my business.  Worse, after spending 15-2o minutes with the website, I’m not sure what department I go to in person to apply for my business license.  “D”

Overall:   I noticed that the Philly site received an award from MuniNet as a “top pick” website which surprised me.  Then I looked at the document date at the bottom of the page and it read, “02-10-03.”  I went to MuniNet’s top picks and found the Philadelphia’s site listed among the top picks for “2002.”  They are still touting their website creds from more than six years ago.  In Internet years that’s like the roaring twenties. 

To be fair, this is a website with lots of content.  They have attempted to provide users with the ability to report on lots of different issues that confront them in daily life.   However, the website is clearly a federation of web-fiefdoms, each with their own agenda and navigational structure.  This makes it it difficult for the user to navigate, to learn what they can do on this website or more generally even understand how their government makes their lives better.  “C”

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