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Posted: April 4, 2013 8:40 p.m.

County to get new, updated website

Newton County’s website is set to get a complete makeover, a move county officials agreed was long overdue.
The Board of Commissioners approved Tuesday a contract with California-based Vision Internet, which will pay the company $19,975 for the creation of a new website and a $6,000 annual fee for ongoing hosting, maintenance and content management.

The board chose Vision over a company offering a free website redesign because officials were more impressed with Vision’s interaction and design.

Vision lists the websites of the nearby Decatur Visitor’s Bureau and City of Atlanta among its clients.

County Manager John Middleton said the county has $38,000 set aside for the project, which will cover the cost for the first two years.

Residents and officials have long complained about the functionality of the current county website, co.newton.ga.us, noting that it’s hard to navigate to find specific information.

County officials said Tuesday they were impressed with the interaction with Vision’s team, as well as the company’s flexibility in design.

Kansas-based CivicPlus was one of the other contenders and another major player in the government website world, but Commissioner Lanier Sims said he didn’t like their use of template designs.

Officials wanted something unique that would have longevity.

“I think CivicPlus is a pretty good representative of what websites look like today; I think Vision Internet has that ability to take us to an area of what websites are going to look like tomorrow and going forward. I think that’s the difference,” Middleton said. “When we started the website we had, it didn’t look bad; it looked like everybody else’s.”

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said Vision offered a “superior product” based on its presentation. She called a mayor of a community that used Vision, and he also had a positive review.

That city also had narrowed down its decision to CivicPlus and Vision but ultimately decided it didn’t want a template design.

CivicPlus actually had a higher bid of $49,277 for the initial design with no maintenance for the first two years; however, CivicPlus would have done the redesign for free because Newton County was chosen as one of 13 winners in a contest that ranked government sites in terms of user-friendliness.

There were 175 entries this year, according to the company.

At one point, officials referred to the contest as selecting the 10 worst websites in the country, but Michael Ashford, marketing director for CivicPlus, said that’s not the case.

Ashford said the “Extreme Website Makeover Contest” studies a website’s design, functionality and engagement with its audience.

What makes a good government site?

Newton County garnered a ranking of 2 on a scale from 1 to 6, meaning citizens had limited engagement with the site.

Forms of engagement including email and text message alerts, calendars, ability for citizens to add information and make requests, transparency in terms of financial and other documents, streaming video, online payment services and social media use.

“If I can pay bills online, shop online and blog online, I expect to interact with my government in much the same way,” said Ashford, who noted that around 66 to 67 percent of citizens across the U.S. don’t have good experiences on their government’s website.

“One of the biggest things is to think like a citizen. A lot of governments need to stop thinking citizens understand or want to understand government’s organizational structure. They need to base sites and navigation on services governments provide, not by department names and titles,” Ashford said. “My best example, that I often use, is what I think of when I hear the term ‘solid waste’ is very different from what that is to a government organization. Call it trash and garbage.”

The other governments selected as winners in need of help were: Irwindale, Calif.; Gunnison County, Colo.; Coventry, Conn.; Flagler Beach, Fla.; Madison, Ind.; Parsons, Kan.; Harahan, La.; Greenbelt, Md.; Victoria, Minn.; Damascus, Ore.; and District of Highlands, British Columbia.

In the end, county officials thought it made more sense to spend more money up front to get a product they were satisfied with. Both Vision and CivicPlus offer free redesigns after four years of service; CivicPlus had slightly higher annual fees at $7,154 per year and its free redesign contract could not be negotiated.

Spreading the word

Commissioner Lanier Sims said the county’s website is often its first impression and that can make a big difference.

He also said it’s hard to communicate with the citizens of the county because not everyone gets the same utility bills, which often can be used to spread information, or watches the same TV channels, like the public access channel.

“We don’t have from the board or the county one way of communicating, and I think this website will fill some of the gaps,” Sims said, including email and text blasting for emergency situations or change in location of meetings, etc.

“There seems to be a consensus we want to improve our website standing in the United States,” Chairman Keith Ellis deadpanned as he asked for a motion to select a vendor. The vote was unanimous.

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