By Mary Kate Feeney
FRAMINGHAM – If you want to know the most popular dog name in Framingham, go to the City’s website.
But if you want to explore the current budget data, well, you aren’t going to find it on the City website. You will have to put in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and the City may or may not send you the information within the legally required 10-day window.
When it comes to the website and online transparency, Framingham barely receives a passing grade.
Across the country, municipal governments are rethinking their digital presence and how they can better deliver services and information to their residents.
It is good government. It is transparency.
As Governor Patrick’s Director of Online Media nearly a decade ago, I was involved in the overdue redesign of Mass.Gov and the implementation of OpenCheckbook (now called CTHRU). Government websites not focused on the resident are bulky and filled with endless pdf files. When Mass.Gov underwent its redesign, we put the focus on residents, what they searched for and top requested services.
Framingham’s website is the City’s digital Memorial Building.
Not a week goes by that I don’t read or hear a complaint about how difficult it is to find something on the website.
Framingham’s website needs a complete redesign and restructuring to make it simple and direct. Limit the number of clicks for residents to bring them right to services. Implement an easy to read and clear font and style that is not only easy to read for all ages but is legally compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act.
The site calendar should include all events, including meetings of the Council, and all boards and commissions with easy reference to their agendas. Government should not act in the shadows. Resident participation in meetings is one way to let in the sunshine.
Want to view the City budget online?
Well, you need to know where to look. If you go to the Mayor’s website, you’ll find a link to the FY 2020 budget (currently we are in FY 2021), which takes you to a page that only says “Mayor Yvonne M. Spicer presents the FY 2020 City of Framingham Budget for review.” And you click on another link. Finally, you reach budget central.
Other communities, like Somerville, Greenfield and Arlington, do a really good job with transparency surrounding their budget.
Arlington’s visual budget allows residents to see how their individual property tax is spent. They break it down in such a way that you feel like you are seen as a partner in government, not simply a source of revenue. Somerville and Greenfield break down their budgets using similar programs the state uses for CTHRU. They list vendors, revenue sources and expenditures in an easy, accessible medium.
Next, Framingham has to tackle its mobile app problem. If I can order food, buy toilet paper or check my bank account from my phone, then I should be able to engage with my local government on it, too.
Framingham used to have a city app, but it has not been updated since 2018.
Then there is the DPW’s FramWorks, which reminds me of trash day.
Followed by SeeClickFix, which bizarrely has been branded with “Choose Framingham,” the City’s ill-defined marketing campaign, where you can report various non-emergency issues.
Time to bring back one Framingham app, where you can pay your bills, email our elected officials, report issues and check the trash schedule.
Implement it with a 311 system, which was promised but yet to be delivered. No one needs the hassle of multiple apps.
Let’s give our residents one stop shopping on their phones.
For too long the City’s focus has been on itself, and not its residents. Paying bills or renewing a dog license should be one click away. Taxpayers should not have to search the site to view the City’s budget or see what meetings are happening that night.
In 2021, we can access anything online with a click or a swipe on our phones. We want information easily and quickly. People want to take care of tasks from the comfort of their homes and not have to drive somewhere for something that will take 5 minutes.
They also want to know the people they elect care about them and the place we call home. Improving our digital footprint promotes transparency and builds community.
It is a lot of work. Changing how Framingham does business online shows residents that the city actually cares.
How refreshing would that be. Let the sunshine in.
Mary Kate Feeney, a resident of Pheasant Hill, is a former aide to Governor Deval L. Patrick.