New Watertown Web site designed to be a “virtual city hall”

Web SiteAnybody who has visited the city of Watertown’s Web site since the first of the year has certainly noticed some drastic chances.

The city’s newly designed site, launched in late December, is intended to be a “virtual city hall.” The city hopes to be able to use the new site to provide citizens with more timely and easily accessible information, expedite ease the process by which residents can offer feedback or complaints, and provide weekly updates on city projects through a new blog feature.

In essence, city administrator Luke Fischer said the goal of the new Web site is to share more information in a more user friendly manner.

“The city council and city staff all strongly believe that if people have a good understanding of what’s going on in the community, we’re a better community for that,” Fischer said. “Having a good Web site is just one aspect of good communication.”

One of the most distinctive aspects of the new Web site — aside from the fact that it is much more visually appealing — is the lack of clutter on the home page. Visitors are presented with three large blocks that serve as links directing them deeper into the site. Fischer said that design was created intentionally, partially to make the site function better on tablets or smartphones.

“When we began the overall process to create a new Web site, we wanted everything to be user friendly from a computer interface to a tablet interface,” Fischer said. “We tried to get one main landing page that can easily help you find the information you need. The new landing page isn’t as content heavy as it is link heavy. We’re hoping people can go there and find what they need in an easy fashion.”

The city first began exploring a new Web page early in 2012, when the city council authorized the development of a new site. The need and desire for a new site was driven largely by the fact that old site didn’t allow city staff members to post content themselves.

“When we began our process to investigate what our site was and what it could be, we started with the idea that the site in its old form didn’t allow us to manage content on our own,” Fischer said. “We had to farm content out to a consultant who post stuff when we needed it posted. In that practice, we found we weren’t able to get information to the site quick enough about things that mattered to people in the community.”

One of the main content improvements of the new site is that more agenda’s will be provided to the public. The city had always posted city council meeting agendas on its Web site a few days before the meetings, but now, under the “My Government” section of the site, agendas for Planning Commission meetings, Park Board meetings and Economic Development Authority meetings will also be available.

Under the “How Do I” Section of the site, residents will also be more easily able to register complaints regarding city parks, streets or other problems in the city with an easy online form. In the past, residents would have to wait until business hours to contact city hall, or look up a staff members e-mail address.

The new blog feature is also expected to provide both useful and interesting information to residents. Fischer said the blog, which will likely be updated weekly, is expected to at times to provide lighthearted and entertaining  information on the goings-on in the city, and other times will provide more serious or important information. The blog will likely be updated with info on city projects, resource and service availability and other useful community information.

“We do a lot of things as a city that don’t necessarily get a lengthy report in council chambers,” Fischer said. “We wanted to be able to, with our news blog, keep the public informed about things going on and what’s happing with city projects and other interesting stuff. We wanted to find a way to quickly get information out to people, and a Web blog was one way we’ve heard people say they get information.”

The new Web site also features an A-Z index, which Fischer said will become more useful as the site becomes more robust, helping residents easily find city documents. The “Other Resources” section of the page also gives visitors quick links to the Carver County GIS site, the Sheriff’s Office Crime Mapping System, and other tools. Fischer also stressed that the city is trying to share information with the public through Facebook, and its facebook stream is also posted to the Web site.

“The Web site is a work in progress,” Fischer said. “We’re continuing to build out content over time. If there is something people would like to see on the Web site, we certainly welcome feedback people might have.”

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]