WEST LONG BRANCH– The Monmouth University Polling Institute and Graduate Program in Public Policy announced the results of their New Jersey E-Government Municipal Website Evaluation today, and four Middlesex County municipalities made the top 25 in the state. The project assessed 540 municipal websites in New Jersey for both content and ease of use.
The top municipal website according to the evaluation is Middletown Township in Monmouth County. This website scored highest on combined content availability and ease of use. North Brunswick came in 7th, Old Bridge ranked 9th, South Brunswick 11th and Sayrveville 17th. Roselle had the best-ranked municipal website in Union County, at 43rd place.
“Municipal websites can be critical tools to inform and engage the public while creating efficiencies in the provision of public services. Efforts to incorporate technology into public sector service delivery and public interaction need to be supported in order to promote best practices statewide,” said Kathryn Kloby, director of the Monmouth University Graduate Program in Public Policy.
The study found that nearly all municipal websites in New Jersey provide the names of council members (98%), mayor (97%), and town clerk (94%), as well as the municipal hall address (96%). About two-thirds of town websites provide an email link or message function to directly reach the clerk (66%), mayor (61%), or council members (58%). Just under half provide department emails (48%). However, if a constituent does not know which department should be contacted, only 20% of websites provide a general email address to reach town hall.
It is worth noting that the coding team could not clearly locate the municipal budget on 15% of the websites, which is a state statutory requirement. At the other end of the spectrum, content that is unlikely to be provided on municipal websites are video recordings of city council meetings (6%), crime statistics (3%), and online pet licensing (1%).
“Websites are probably the single most important tool for citizens to find local information. According to a poll we conducted in 2011, Garden State residents are far more likely to visit a municipal website than to call or write a town official,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
The project also evaluated a website’s ease of use based on the average time it took to find four key pieces of information on each website. Overall, locating permit information took an average of 31 seconds to locate. Information about the mayor and the municipal budget each took about 35 seconds to find. Information about trash pick-up took the longest, 61 seconds on average.
The amount of content available on a municipal website correlates significantly to the size of the town. In other words, the larger the town, the more content the website is likely to provide. About three-quarters (74%) of websites for municipalities with populations of 10,000 or more include at least half of the 86 content items used in the evaluation. That declines to 64% among towns with populations between 5,000 and 10,000. There is a significant drop off to 38% of towns with populations between 2,500 and 5,000 who have at least half of the evaluated items on their websites, and a further drop to just 23% of towns with fewer than 2,500 people.
There is no clear relationship, though, for the ease of use component of the study. The Ease of Use score does appear to improve slightly among towns with larger populations, but it drops off at the top category of 25,000 residents or more.
Municipal spending appears to have limited impact on website quality. In fact, there seems to be a bell-shaped relationship between per capita spending and website content. Specifically, for towns whose municipal budget equates to between $750 and $2,000 per resident the average Content Score ranges along a narrow band from 35.0 to 35.7. This score is lower, though, for towns at either end of the per capita spending continuum, including those that spend over $2,000 per resident (32.5) and those that spend less than $750 per resident (31.3).
The evaluation also found that websites designed by third-party vendors with multiple clients tend to perform better than those which are designed by single-client designers (or volunteers) or by municipal staff. The average Content Score for multiple-client vendor sites is 37.6 compared to 31.1 for other third-party designers and 33.9 for municipal staff designed sites. The Ease of Use Score is also higher for multiple-client vendor sites (41.4) than it is for other third-party designers (38.5) and municipal staff designed sites (37.5).
Methodology: The project evaluated each website for the inclusion of 86 separate content items in four categories: information for citizens, citizen interaction, online government services, and social networking. The research team also assessed each municipal website for “ease of use” in finding four key pieces of information: mayor’s or mayor-equivalent’s contact information, building permit form or information, municipal budget, and trash/recycling information. Ease of use was determined by the amount of time it took to locate each piece of information on the website. Initial content scoring was done from March to June 2012 and ease of use evaluations were conducted from July to September 2012.
The full report New Jersey E-Government: Best Practices for Municipal Websites can be found at www.monmouth.edu/polling .