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Sustaining the local benefits of Massachusetts small town government is a challenge as the functions of local government grow ever more complex and the costs associated with that complexity increase. E-government has the potential to shrink the importance of size, distance, and remoteness in interacting with state oversight agencies and in delivering services to local residents. E-government requires, however, fast and reliable connections to the Internet, accompanied by simple inexpensive technologies that are appropriate to non-technical part-time local officials.
E-government makes abundant sense to state agencies, which can deliver services and information cheaper and faster over the Internet. Unless state agencies can reliably reach 100% of localities through digital means, however, they must maintain parallel systems to reach those municipal customers, often at considerable cost.
E-government could and should greatly improve the operations and services of small towns that typically have part-time employees available only a few hours a week. E-government can make town documents, announcements, and records available 24/7, as well as on-line services such as tax payments, applications, permits, and licensing.
State and local governments, therefore, both have a vested interest in expanding the potential of E-government services to all municipalities in the Commonwealth.
More: What, Why, How
E-government: How do we get started?
Why Commit to e-government?
No town government should confront the problem of lost data because of hardware failure, individual mistakes, electrical problems, or disasters, whether manmade or natural. Until very recently, backups of essential municipal data might depend on the habits, foresight, or competence of certain local officials. Too often Murphy's Law intervened, and some towns found themselves re-keying critically important financial records from incomplete salvaged files, at great embarrassment and expense. On-line backup services became available through a state blanket contract a few years ago that were affordable for even the smallest towns and automatically occurred if the computer was connected with the Internet. Even cheaper, in some cases free, on-line backup is now available from multiple web vendors, with "unattended" automatic backup occurring on a constant basis (as described in a recent New York Times article.) As small town departments shift official records from bulky ledgers and bound volumes to electronic blips, it is imperative that these blips get saved and stored in multiple safe locations, every day. Time, expense, or technical difficulty used to excuse good intentions gone astray. Changing technology has effectively eliminated these excuses. Auditors now might view ensuring backup of essential data as a simple matter of executive competence or negligence.
To work, E-government needs broadband Internet connectivity. Approximately thirty towns west of Worcester County and a smaller number to the east lack either DSL or cable Internet providers. Various initiatives are underway to rectify this situation so that individuals, businesses, and municipal offices in virtually all cities and towns have fast, reliable Internet connections. Full coverage, however, may be two or three years away. Once access is available to all town halls, the next issue is ensuring that key officials have access to a computer hooked into that broadband service. In the smallest towns, that may mean sharing one PC in town hall or doing work at home.
The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative is sponsoring a number of initiatives to study and implement broadband services, by one means or another, throughout the Commonwealth. Innovative organizations such as Berkshire Connect and Pioneer Valley Connect have brought broadband services to member businesses and organizations in their areas that are underserved by major telecommunication or cable providers. Legislation created and funded a yet-to-be named Wireless and Broadband Development Council to plan and implement universal broadband access throughout the Commonwealth.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association has emphasized broadband development in its state-local partnership document.
DLS technology plans assume these initiatives will enable every town hall to connect to a broadband service at a reasonable cost within two to three years.
Underserved Communities Pilot Project
Broadband Initiative Funding Report
Shutesbury-Leverett Broadband Committee
Model for Community Controlled Broadband (Illinois)
Democratizing Access to the Airwaves and the Wires
Municipal Websites: Brochure or Service Delivery?
Even the smallest towns in Massachusetts are on the Internet with official municipal websites. While it is relatively inexpensive and easy to create a website, too often the result is an on-line brochure that seldom changes and does not offer current budgets; bylaws and ordinances; agenda and minutes; and town meeting agenda and results of all votes.
A recent story in the Springfield Republican dealt with this issue and the desire of groups like Common Cause to see more essential municipal records on-line.
The "trick" to achieving a constantly updated yet affordable website is to use website software that allows a non-technical municipal employee to post new content to the website as part of their regular duties. That software should also allow for appropriate controls in the event that a supervisor should approve the content before actual posting. Some small communities can, for a time, rely on a dedicated local "webmaster" who for their own reasons will publish updates using html or full-blown website development software. Such arrangements have built in limits, however, whether it is the amount of new content handled at little or no cost, the webmaster's availability (vacations, sickness, other commitments), or what to do when the webmaster suddenly quits or leaves town. That being said, if volunteer arrangements are working well for a community, there is no reason not to make the most of a good situation.
Various vendors using different approaches offer "Content management" by regular, non-technical municipal department staff, e.g. the Town Administrator, Selectboard's secretary or Board of Health's clerk.
Examples below include
- content management through town employee email postings through the software vendor
- direct posting through "open source" municipal website software
- webmaster based - town employee webmaster: Administrative Assistant to the Board of Selectmen "with support and maintenance by a local volunteer staff. We are fortunate to have a web site design firm in Gill, Starstruck Design, who takes care of the hosting and trained me to use the software, Microsoft Frontpage. We also have IT support staff from the Northfield Mount Hermon private school located in Gill on the town IT team that assist with network connections (actually set up and installed the network at Town Hall), email and computer related issues including purchasing etc. The only cost to the town is the annual fee of $100 for hosting the website and of course my time. I spend approximately zero to four hours a week, dependent upon the need for changes to the website. We recently added a recreation page highlighting programs and schedules and hope to add a separate page for library programs and board minutes in the future as well.