Archive for the ‘Sunday Specials’ Category

Sunday specials: Mile high city

February 1, 2009

City of Denver:

http://www.denvergov.org/

Transparency:  On the home page for the City Council there is a list of meeting dates for 2009 with links to the agendas and minutes where appropriate.  I didn’t see a link to an archive of previous year meetings.   There is a feature called, “Denver 8 Online” which follows city government.  Unfortunately, its not clear from the City Council meetings page that videos of the past meeting are available for viewing.  You have to go to “Denver 8 Online” and look at the different types of City Council meetings and pick “General Government Committee Meeting” which I am assuming is the regular city council meetings but there is no explanation.  While it looks like they provide agendas, minutes and videos, its not easy to access from a single webpage.  “C+”

Feedback: Denver is like other cities in not posting or encouraging user comments.  As an aside, I’m surprised I haven’t seen any city or mayor with a public blog.  A citizen can report a crime online through the police department but first you need to provide them with your email address and they have a series of online forms to fill out.  Like most other municipal websites, they fail to tell you from the first form, what information you will need to provide them or how many online forms there are to fill out.  Still, this is a useful online tool.  “B”

Richness of Information:  From the home page sidebar there is a label for “Building and Construction” that took me to the “Building and Construction” page which is a series of useful links for permits, contracting, records and the like.   I clicked on “Building and Construction Permits” and it take me to a page which is also a series of links to the various types of building permits.  Its a bit disappointing when I finally get to the end page, “Zoning Permits” and it just gives me an email and phone contact.  Couldn’t that information have been provided on the first page of the Building and Construction page?  “B-“

Transacting business: Up until I wanted to do get a business license, I was pleased that the Denver municipal website was integrated.  Other cities (that will remain nameless) took me to different websites with confusing navigation schemes. I was pleased that didn’t happen with Denver.  Then I went to “business services” and clicked on “Small and Disadvantaged Business Resources,” and it took me to a different website; “milehigh.com” which has a different navigation and layoff from the main site.  From there, I can find out what forms I need and access the forms but ultimately I have to fill them out by hand and mail them in.  “C+”

Overall: Until I sought out a business license, I was pleased with the consistency of the navigational experience of the Denver municipal website.  I liked the side navigational bar that stayed in place where ever I was on the website.  It is  also more focused on what functions citizens want to perform with their city than they are providing extraneous information about the city government.  For example, the building and construction section doesn’t focus on the various city offices with a photo of their desk but on specific types of permits and processes.  There aren’t many tasks that can be performed online.  Most things require a stamp.  Related to that problem is that the website pretends to be more interactive than it is.  It takes you to pages where you think you will able to interact with the city only to be given a phone number and email.  The website should promote that information upfront and not waste people’s time clicking on links.  “B-“

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Sunday special: City of Miami Website

January 25, 2009

City of Miami

http://www.miamigov.com/cms/

Transparency:The good news – excellent resources for following Miami’s City Comission (their equivalent of the City Council).  They not only have agendas, minutes AND videos of the meetings, they also allow visitor to track meetings through RSS feeds.  And they also have a promenient search feature at the page.  The bad news – its not clear from the home page that the city commission IS the equivalent of a city council.  Worse, when I figured out to click on “commission agenda’s” it took me to another website from which I then navigated back to the main website but not really.  Very confusing.  “B-“

feedback: Not good.  First, the home page doesn’t list out common issues – like reporting potholes or graffiti etc.  Of course, once I searched the site, I realized why; citizen can’t report anything from the website other than emailing city officials. “D”

Richness of Information:   I looked for information about planning permits.  First off, on the left navigation sidebar, there is a heading for “Class II Permits” but not “permits.”  After browsing the planning department site, I found, “land development” which lists out information about permits.  But it isn’t clear that the permits discussed on this page are a comprehensive set of permits.  In addition, the writing is confusing and opaque.  Here is an example:  “Class II Special Permits apply to issues related to design, character, and compatibility of a proposed application as specified within different sections of the Zoning Ordinance and the City Code.”  “D”

Transacting business: Argh.  I had to use the search function and even then it wasn’t easy to find how to obtain a business license.  From the home page, I have go into the “business” label on the left sidebar.  Then I had  to know that business licenses could be found under “economic development” and when that page opens, its called” economic initiatives” not “economic development.”  From there, I needed to realize I need to click on “small business toolkit” as my choice on the left navigational sidebar.  Then I saw a label for “get licensed” and a long section of tiny print appears detailing issues – in no particular order – that discuss getting licensed with a series of phone numbers.  Extremely poor.  “F”

Overall:  This is the worst municipal site I have analyzed.  The only redeeming feature is the excellent page dealing with the City Commission even if the navigation to it is poor.  But bad navigation is the rule with this website.  It is frequently difficult to navigate back to the home page.  Instead, once you are in a particular section, you can only get to the section’s homepage.  The print on the webpages is tiny.  The writing is worse and the website is oblivious to the users who come to the site for answers or to do business with the city.  There is virtually no ability to interact with the city government online and very little effort to even educate citizens about the functions of municipal government.  “D”

Sunday Special: City of Seattle website

January 11, 2009

City of Seattle: http://www.seattle.gov/

Transparency:  Seattle has the best City Council page that I’ve reviewed. First, its easy to find from the top right side of the website. Next, they feature a “Council Live” feed from the City Council page and there is also a “Committee & Agenda” tab that takes you to a well-organized list of committees with links to video archives and also has agendas and minutes linked as well.  Best of all, its lists not only full council meeting but specialized committees such as housing and public safety.  “A+”

Feedback:  Sadly, Seattle isn’t cutting edge in this regard.  I’m still looking for the city that posts comments or has an interactive social media element to their website. However, Seattle does provide citizens an easy-to-use form to connect with the Mayor’s office.  There is also on excellent one-page feedback form for the police department.  “B-“

Richness of information: Seattle does an excellent job at both providing great amount of information and instruction on its website and displaying it in a readable way.  Even better, the website provide an excellent overview of how the City government works and how to use and interact with it.  For example, at the “Department of Planning and Development” it provides three clear and useful sections; “Planning,” “Permits” “Compliance” and clearly delineates what kinds of information to expect these sections to contain.  I selected “Permits” and then three more sections appear “Permit Types” “Process Overview” “Inspections” with clear explanations beneath in each area.  Without having spent more than seconds reading through these pages, I learn a great deal about the nature of this departments work and processes.  “A+”

Transacting business:  To apply for a business license, you have to register and then the website takes you through a series of forms.  One thing I liked about this process is that at the top of the page there are a series of tabs that outlines all the steps and as you enter data it shows you where you are in the process.  So often you start a transaction not aware of what you are being asked or how many pages you will have to click through.  “A”

Overall: The City of Seattle has an excellent website; its attractive, easy-to-use, clearly laid-out, with clear and concise information on every page. They provide a wealth of material including video and most importantly the site is gear around providing the user with functionality rather than simply information. For example, there is no big photo of the department head with a long “welcome” page. This is useless and self-serving on a website. Instead there is news and clear explanations of how a department work and how to work with it.  I hope Seattle is also in the forefront of social media and will implement those features to its site soon.  “A”


Sunday Special: City of Houston

January 4, 2009

City of Houston: http://www.houstontx.gov/

Transparency:  Apparently there is no video or audio archive of City Council meetings.  No real-time video and audio archives either.  They do post upcoming and past city council meeting agendas but no meeting minutes.  “C-“

Feedback: Like other city websites, Houston doesn’t appear to encourage posting of other citizens’ complaint or concerns. However, also like other municipal websites,  a citizen can report on broken parking meters and street light outages.  The link for reporting grafitti is broken.  On the plus side, Texas has a Public Information Act which allows citizens to request information from a government entity regarding existing reports.  The City of Houston does a good job of listing the relevant agency, the type of information available and the department’s contact information. “B-“

Richness of information:  I went to “Public Works and Engineering” which has an impressive amount of information about the divisions, water rates, sewage and projects.  Unfortunately, most of the best information requires the user to scroll to the bottom of the page to find it because the introductory section is a long block of text. “B-“

Transacting business: I went to the link “One stop business center” from the “Business” tab and the page has the hours of the office scrolling across the top of the page and a photo of the department (two empty chairs and the counter) and a phone number. Along the side are links to pdf documents called “Getting Started Packet 1” and “Getting Started Packet 2.” It took quite awhile to download the first packet and the front page explains that there is no general City of Houston business license.  Beyond that, the document contains a lot of random information.  It didn’t strike me as a “Getting started packet.”  I also wonder why some of the information couldn’t have been included on the web-page rather than hidden away in a pdf.   It would good to know without having to download the packet that there is no general City of Houston business license.  “D-“

Overall:  The City of Houston has lots of information and the basic layout of the website is intuitive and easy on the eye. However, once I delved into individual sections, there are a number that are “under construction,” contain broken links and have poor layouts.  “C-“

Sunday Special: City of Angels municipal website

December 28, 2008

City of Los Angeles Website: http://www.ci.la.ca.us/

Transparency:  Los Angeles provides an archival video feed for its City Council meetings which is what I thought other cities such as Chicago and New York would also feature and didn’t.  My only quibble is from the home page, the link to City Council video isn’t found under “City Council” but “LA City Clerk Connect” which isn’t where I would expect to find it.  “A-“

Feedback:  Like New York and Chicago there is no interactive feedback allowed on the site.  You can’t see what others have said about City services or experiences.  However, they do allow citizens to report on many aspects of city life; graffiti removal, street lighting, trash pickup etc.  The forms tend to be single pages where all the information can be provided rather than multiple and unclear pages.  “B+”

Richness of Information:  I went to the “Department of Building and Safety” and was immediately impressed both by the amount of information made available from that page but also the easy-to-use layoff.  They provide a “what’s new” section, a sidebar called “I want to get” featuring more than a dozen links, a main section with forms, a “frequently requested publications” section as well as related departments and links.  “A”

Transacting business:  A new business can’t file a “Doing business as” (DBA) form online but its very easy to find the forms, conduct a search on business names, find the publications to file a notice and obtain the cost of filing for a DBA.  You can download the form and mail it to the correct city agency.  “B+”

Overall: The Los Angeles City website is the best of the three largest U.S. city websites.  It provides a wealth of information that is easy to find and to read.  It also allows citizens and businesses to interact more with city officials about basic issues like trash and the like.   Its not Web 2.0 but given the wealth of information and it is not a messy or intimidating site.  “A-“

Sunday Special: that toddlin’ town, Chicago!

December 21, 2008

Today I’m reviewing the City of Chicago’s municipal website: http://egov.cityofchicago.org

Transparency:  I was excited when I found the City Council page and it said, “City Council Webcasts.”  I clicked on that link and it told me that the next meeting would be on Jan. 13th 2009 and I would be able to watch video live stream.   That’s better than New York but when I looked for an archive of city council meeting videos, I didn’t have any luck.  You have to watch the video live.  However, there is a webpage for the “City Council Journal of Proceedings that provides awkward access to all the City Council meetings back to 1988.  “B+”

Feedback:  They have a “311” service that allows citizens to report a variety of problems.  The interface isn’t very intuitive or friendly but it’s functional.  The city doesn’t advertise this service.  There is nothing on the City’s homepage to suggest you can make a complaint.  I only found this page by putting “pothole” in the search box.  The first result looked promising but then I had to back up several screens to find the “311” service allowing me to enter my information.  “B”

Richness of Information: I spent a few minutes navigating through the “Department of Consumer Services” and found it lacking.  There are lots of navigational pages with little content that lead to pages with little content.  For example, when I clicked on “About DCS” it took me to a page with three links, “Overview,” “Website” and “Industry rules and regulations.”  I clicked on “Overview” and it provided me with a sentence that basically said, Department of Consumer Services assists consumers with their services.  Not helpful. “D”

Transacting business:  It looks like you can apply for a new business license from the City of Chicago but the process is cumbersome.  You have to fill out several screens to create a profile in order to qualify for conducting business.  Since I’m not a resident, I couldn’t go through the process.  “B”

Overall:  Compared to New York City website, the Chicago site provides more information on City Council activity and the webcast of the meetings is a plus.  It also allows citizens to perform transactions like obtaining business licenses on the web.  The search function is good which is important because the navigation is poor.  There are too many unnecessary navigational pages.  It take a several unnecessary click to drill down to the desired information.  Also like New York, the city is weak on interactivity, can’t see other citizen comments about information or engage with the site. “C+”

Sunday Special:Big apple website

December 14, 2008

Welcome to my first municipality website report card.  Today, I’m reviewing the New York City website. http://www.nyc.gov

Transparency:  I checked out how easy it is to read, listen or watch to City Council meetings.  Its not.  They have a calendar, they provide snippets of videos and audio podcasts but if I want to quickly find out when the last full council meeting was, who was present, what they discussed, good luck.  I’m not saying its not available but I shouldn’t have to be an Internet sleuth, browsing and searching for ten minutes and fail to find such basic information. “C”

Feedback: It is possible to fill-out a form to complain about potholes, graffiti and other basic issues.  The form is cumbersome and requires filling out several screens which discourages people from following through.  Also, there is no interactivity.  The commenter doesn’t know if someone has already made the same complaint.  A start.  “B-”

Richness of information: I found the Civilian Complaint Review Board which concerns citizens issues with the police.  It was listed on the main drop down of city agencies.  That list is daunting and not organized clearly, some agency start with “City” and that could apply to all of them.  The search feature is excellent.  I typed “police complaint” and the second link was to this board.  The agency site allows for complaints to be filed, information on the agencies success, dates of meeting and board members.  They don’t list agendas for past meeting or minutes.  They don’t provide public information on recent complaints or trends and the like.  “B”

Transacting business:  For business licenses they are exploring a new program that allows a citizen to fill-out an online form, print it and then take it into the appropriate agency.  That’s their exploratory program?  Print off a form and bring in person to an agency?  They have a ways to go on streamlining basic business transaction online.  “C”

Overall:  This is my first official municipality website review.  I can’t compare NYC against other cities.  Its not a bad website; there is some transparency and ability to provide feedback.  They provide a lot of content. But its not that easy to use.  If you go to the NYC Council section it takes you to a different website and you can’t easily get back to the main city website. They don’t provide much in the way of ongoing city business.  You can’t easily monitor city council meeting.  There is not much interactivity.  I can’t see other people’s comments or concerns.  There business license section at least is weak on transactional capabilities.  “C+”

Sunday Special: City Sites

December 7, 2008

Recently I’ve had to use the San Francisco City website and found it lacking so I’ve decided to do a tour of U.S. City websites and give them report cards.   I don’t see much in the way of other such surveys, except from 2001 so hopefully this fills a void.   I will look at four criteria:

1.  Transparency: does the city make council meeting available on the website?  What about other deliberative bodies?  Also, what about municipal contracts.  Can the public learn about the proposals vendors submitted for consideration?

2.  Feedback:  How easy is it for a citizen to register a concern about noise, traffic, garbage pick up etc.  Is it possible to see what other citizens are saying?

3.  If I need to find an obscure city agency and what its charter is and how to contact the agency, how quickly can I find it.   I will look at both browse and search features.

4.  How easy is it for me to transaction business with the municipality from the website?  Can I file a fictitious name state?  Get a business permit?  Pay my parking ticket?

I’ll start with the largest cities and work my way down the list.  Also, my report card won’t be a measure of how cities stack up against each other but against what they SHOULD be able to do given the immense and amazing Internet capabilities out there.

So next Sunday: The big apple!

Sunday Special: Researching defective products

November 30, 2008

I have featured a few product liability lawsuits.  These are good sources for dark side of a company’s product information but its not easy to find them.   While many courts provide access to their electronic court dockets there are hundreds of them to search and many don’t allow you to search easily by company name.  The SEC filings could be useful but they often mask the true nature of the suits or don’t mention them at all.  For example, earlier I featured a lawsuit against Hewlett Packard involving a faulty video card but if you look at the SEC filings none of those kinds of suits are listed.

This is where the Consumer Product Safety Commission comes in.  Frequently, products are subject to warnings or recalls before major litigation occurs and you can find out about a company’s less successful product offerings.  In the case of Hewlett Packard, you can use the cumbersome search feature (HERE) to look for the products with major safety and health issues.  The most recent HP recalls have all involved products that have caught fire.

Note that the lawsuit involving the video card has no precedent at the commission.  This is because the commission doesn’t recall faulty products unless they cause a health and safety problem.  So if you buy a lemon and you want justice, you’ll have to go to court.  Best to find others in a like position and a class action attorney ready to take the case.  Otherwise, your damages won’t get you into superior court.

Sunday Special: Learning about a company through lawsuits

November 23, 2008

I’ve talked about using SEC reports, specifically 10-Ks and 10-Qs as guides to understanding a company’s litigation profile.  What kinds of suits?  How big a deal are they?

Today I’m focusing on what this litigation says about the company itself.   Numbers may tell stories about profits and successes and the website and news generally tell you what the company wants you to know  but lawsuits against a company tell you what they DON’T want you to know.

Here are four things to think about when looking at a company’s legal proceedings:

o   Does the company carry litigation costs associated with asbestos claims or other large scale mass tort actions?

 

o   Are they hit with lots of class action claims based on faulty products and/or services?

 

o   Are they subject to lots of suits claiming shoddy or unfair business practices?

 

o   Have they been subjected to significant securities litigation because shareholders are claiming the company knew about material facts that depressed their stock price and failed to disclose them?