Monday, August 31, 2015

For townships, technological efficiency remains a work in progress

As Facebook reached new heights in 2008, Haverford Township didn't even have email. As technology rapidly changes, townships are running to catch up.

For townships, technological efficiency remains a work in progress

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Rick Maclary became Haverford Township´s first information technology director in 2008. Township Manager Larry Gentile tasked him with a makeover of the township´s network and communication system. (Ashley Nguyen / Philly.com)
Rick Maclary became Haverford Township's first information technology director in 2008. Township Manager Larry Gentile tasked him with a makeover of the township's network and communication system. (Ashley Nguyen / Philly.com)

Rick Maclary came to Haverford Township in January 2008 as the municipality’s first information technology director. In fact, prior to Maclary, the township didn’t have any internal personnel overseeing Haverford’s network, let alone website. It spent money on outside consultants who the township could only use for 40 hours per month.

Maclary walked into what seemed like an ancient situation: Township staffers used their personal Yahoo! and Gmail accounts for official township business. Some PCs couldn’t even run the then-newest software, Windows XP.

When Township Manager Larry Gentile hired Maclary in 2008 to network the township’s computer systems, Maclary faced an ill-functioning website and small server. Well into a technological age of instant gratification and communication, the township was far behind. Until 2011, the agendas for Board of Commissioner meetings were hand-delivered to the commissioners’ homes rather than emailed with one mouse click.

“We’re trying to change from the old ways of doing things,” Gentile said noting that it’s still hard for some employees to transition to so much online and computer work. “But when you’re creating so much change, it takes time for that to happen.”

Maclary set up a network, which included an email system, and got rid of old computers before teaming up with eGov Strategies, a company based out of Indiana that manages approximately 350 local government websites, including Radnor Township’s.

“There was no interaction to the website we had,” Maclary said of the township’s initial site prior to eGov.

But even eGov, which began in 1999, has had to run a bit to keep up with the times. Maclary said he’s ready to incorporate podcasts and live-streaming videos of Board of Commissioner meetings, but he’s waiting on eGov’s model to be ready sometime this March.

“There has been a big push over the past couple of years in terms of social media and being able to integrate the evolution of YouTube,” cofounder of eGov Ken Barlow said. “But we’re beginning to close the gaps.”

Barlow said he’s seen municipalities express the need for methods of online payments for taxes, fines and fees, as well as signing up for permits online rather than visiting the local township building. Efficiency on the Web is something governments need, Barlow said, especially with tightening budgets.

Mary Graham-Zak, the chief technology officer for Lower Merion Township since 1997, said the township thought about instituting online payments in the early-2000s, but the timing wasn’t right.

“Now it’s something we’ll do because it’s becoming more cost-effective,” Graham-Zak said. “It’ll be a real service because it’s 24/7. Right now, if a constituent wants to come in to pay for something, they have to be here between 8:15 a.m. and 4 p.m.”

Staffed with six personnel, Lower Merion’s information technology department is larger than Haverford’s two-men show, but when Graham-Zak came into the township, the same problems surfaced. There wasn’t email, and until 2007, Lower Merion’s website remained subpar.

“We realized we needed to make [our website] more constituent-friendly,” Graham-Zak said. “We’re always looking to enhance our constituent service, efficiencies and improve contacts with the township. Our website wasn’t really doing that.”

Though Graham-Zak credited a few “savvy constituents” who added a lot of input, improving the township website became an internal project facilitated by Vision Internet, a government website developer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., with about 400 governmental clients.

“Over the years, local governments’ websites became a nice thing to serve a niche number of residents to an essential thing that’s needed,” Vision Internet Vice President Tim Schmidt said. “There are lots of tools that we design specifically for local governments, such as calendars that tie in agenda minutes.”

Schmidt said it’s unusual to find any agency that doesn’t value its Web presence today, and social media gives government better ways of communication with residents. But Facebook and Twitter is something Haverford and Lower Merion townships are approaching with caution.

Though Haverford’s Parks and Recreation Department is allowed to use Facebook and Twitter, the township itself doesn’t have an account on either social network.

“My boss, the township manager, asked me, ‘Should we have a Twitter account?’” said Maclary, who still worries about township employees maintaining a uniform website when it comes to text, fonts and color schemes. “But you have to spend time updating it. Are you going to stay on this every day?”

Even in Lower Merion, there’s still a lot of planning that goes into it.

“There are some things we would really love to do, but social media and streaming video requires a good, strong policy,” Lower Merion’s Public Information Officer Brenda Viola said. “We need policies, and we need money.”

Even beyond both townships’ transitions into Internet-friendly communication methods, are the efforts put into digitizing documents that date back to the 1940s.

“We have rooms full of documents, 8mm tapes and floppy discs that need to be converted,” Maclary said of Haverford Township, which doesn’t even have enough room to store everything in its small and aging township building. “We have a one-person part-time employee: A poor girl who will never ever see the light of day.”

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About this blog
Josh Fernandez is a 2011 graduate of Temple University where he studied journalism and gender studies. He was a writer and editor for The Temple News, and has interned at Philadelphia City Paper and the Philadelphia Daily News. Josh lived in Aston, Pa. in Delaware County before moving to University City in Philadelphia.

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