E-government Services and Website Contents of Florida Metropolitan Planning Organizations


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This paper was presented at the 88th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, and was published in Transportation Research Record #2119. A qualitative and quantitative review of Florida's MPO websites was undertaken in early 2008, and the results are discussed in this paper.

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E-government Services and Website Contents of Florida Metropolitan Planning Organizations

  1. 1. E-Government Service Offerings and Website Content of Florida’s Metropolitan Planning Organizations Submission Date: July 29th, 2008 Word Count: 2908 Corresponding Author: Alexander Bond, AICP Center for Urban Transportation Research University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Ave, CUT 100 Tampa, FL 33620-5375 Phone: (813) 974-9779 Fax: (813) 974-5168 ALBond@cutr.usf.edu Jeffrey Kramer, AICP Center for Urban Transportation Research University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Ave, CUT 100 Tampa, FL 33620-5375 Phone: (813) 974-1397 Fax: (813) 974-5168 Kramer@cutr.usf.edu
  2. 2. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 1 Abstract Most metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) maintain websites to support their mission of comprehensive transportation planning. Websites can add value to several agency functions, including public involvement, intergovernmental coordination, and information dissemination. This research project reviewed the websites of all twenty six MPOs in the State of Florida. Websites were rated on several facets of their functionality and content. The study concluded that all of Florida’s MPOs are meeting or exceeding the minimum electronic availability standards set by SAFETEA-LU and public notification standards of Florida State Statute. However, the functionality and content of websites was generally lower than those found on local government websites. Specifically, many MPO websites are not deploying business tools, raw data download capability, and “Web 2.0” technology. Other findings include the need for dedicated MPO domain names, reducing the size of plan documents, and enabling direct contact between professional staff and the public.
  3. 3. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 2 INTRODUCTION Metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are a unique type of government agency. Their mission is to plan for transportation infrastructure improvements on a regional basis, spanning urbanized areas that can cross multiple county or municipal boundaries. Each MPO is governed by elected officials from the local governments inside its planning area. An MPO-drafted plan is required in order for Federal transportation dollars to be spent in any urbanized area larger than 50,000 people. Federal law does not specify the administrative structure or operations of an MPO. As a result, there are a wide variety of MPO staffing and operational arrangements around the country. This variety extends to the websites published by MPOs. There are twenty six MPOs in Florida. Sixteen of them are housed within the county administration or a countywide agency. Five more are staffed and operated by regional planning councils, which are multi-county agencies chartered by state statute. The remaining five are independent agencies (1). All of Florida’s MPOs– and nearly all nationwide– maintain websites to support their mission of a cooperative, comprehensive, and continuing transportation planning process (2). A strong web presence has the ability to improve the public’s perception of the agency, enhance rates of public participation, and improve intergovernmental coordination. Despite the advantages offered, the purpose and functionality of MPO websites varies considerably. This project evaluated the scope and quality of services offered over the internet by MPOs in Florida. Specific criteria investigated include user-friendliness, public involvement tools, public information, and business tools. METHODOLOGY This project reviewed websites from all twenty-six MPOs in Florida. Official websites were obtained from the Florida Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council (MPOAC), a membership group representing MPOs in the state. To collect data for this project, the statistical software SPSS was used to tabulate information. The database included 22 variables coded for likely results. Websites were reviewed in July 2008, with a review of the characteristics found on each site. SPSS tabulated descriptive statistics for each variable. Selected results are found in this report. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION Domain Name An easy to remember– and concisely print– domain name helps the public to remember and visit the MPO website, thus increasing public participation. A unique domain also serves to differentiate the mission of the MPO from the county or regional planning council. Thirteen of Florida’s twenty six MPOs have recognized this, and have moved their web content to a unique domain. An example of a unique domain name is www.volusiacountympo.com. Another eleven MPOs have websites that are a folder within their host agency’s domain. An example of a subfolder address would be www.ncfrpc.org/mtpo, which is the website for the Gainesville
  4. 4. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 3 MTPO, hosted by the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council. The remaining two MPOs have even more complex domain names buried several layers into their host’s domain. An example of a deep domain comes from the Pasco County MPO: http://www.pascocountyfl.net/menu/index/mpoindex.htm. Having a unique domain name does not require the agency to maintain its own website hosting and content management. The host agency can still support the website with its own suite of internet tools. Migrating to a unique domain name is a simple step that can be taken for only a few extra dollars per year in registration fees. Branding Another aspect of public involvement is the “brand,” or the collection of logos, colors, naming conventions, and taglines that define and differentiate the agency from other groups. Very few members of the public have ever heard of a metropolitan planning organization (MPO), and even fewer are aware of what MPOs do. The brand should be designed by marketing and graphic design professionals in such a way that the public recognizes MPO documents and initiatives as separate and distinct from other government agencies. In Florida, 14 of 26 agencies (54%) had a brand that was separate and distinct from their host agency. Figure 1 below displays three branded MPO logos. The remaining agencies borrowed the color schemes, logos, and website design directly from their host agency. Borrowing a brand fails to capture the unique mission of the MPO. Borrowing the brand of a county government may result in the unintended alienation of residents of municipalities and neighboring counties. These people may not realize that the MPO represents them, and therefore not participate in public involvement offerings. FIGURE 1- Examples of MPO Brands Public Notice The public notice of meetings is an important task for an MPO website. Table 1 below summarizes the prevalence of meeting notices and agendas on MPO websites. All of Florida’s MPOs are using their websites to provide public notice. Internet-based public notice appears to be a supplement to traditional notices such as newspaper advertisements. Twenty-four MPOs
  5. 5. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 4 (92%) offer upcoming meeting agendas on their website. The remaining two offered to distribute agendas by email to those who opt in to an email list. The average lead time for publishing agendas and meeting notices is as far as one month ahead, far outstripping their municipal peers. TABLE 1- Public Meeting Information Board Meeting Agendas 24 92% CAC Meeting Agendas 22 84% Meeting Announcements 26 100% Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting agendas were also frequently posted on the web. CACs are required to exist under Florida’s MPO authorizing legislation- Chapter 339.175. Most MPOs appear to be treating CACs in the same manner as their governing boards, affording them the same notice and recording as a governing board meeting. Contact Information As public agencies, MPOs have a responsibility to be open and transparent about who is making decisions and leading the agency. Readily available contact information also enhances intergovernmental coordination, since staff members from peer agencies can easily locate contact information of their counterpart. Florida MPOs are doing a good job of furnishing contact information to the public over the internet, but there is still room for improvement. Table 2 below summarizes the prevalence of contact information on MPO websites. Every board member is listed by name, but only 10 of the 26 offer direct contact information for each board member. CACs were not as well represented, with thirteen agencies listing their CAC members by name, and only three showing contact information of members. TABLE 2- Frequency of Contact Information Listing Group Percent Listed Percent with Individual Contacts Board 100% 38% Citizens Advisory 50% 12% Committees Staff 84% 50% Eighty four percent of MPOs posted the name and title of every staff member. Despite the high listing rate, only 50% published phone numbers and email addresses for each individual staff member. This may indicate that the staff director prefers to be the unified point of contact for public inquiry. Public Involvement Tools Websites can have content that enhance the rate of public involvement, bring new participants into the process, and render more valuable information for staff (3). The advent of “Web 2.0” technology has created tools that allow for websites to function as a medium for input and discussion of ideas with the public. For example, many municipalities are offering forms on their webpage that allow the public to make a code violation complaint. This contrasts with older internet technology, which did not allow for the user to report information back to the
  6. 6. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 5 publisher. Despite the availability and affordability of such applications, few MPOs are deploying them. Table 3 below summarizes the frequency of Web 2.0 applications. Note than zero agencies are employing RSS feeds (news services), bulletin boards, or wikis (editable documents), all of which are commonplace in the private sector and are being increasingly deployed by government. TABLE 3- Frequency of Web Content Tools Tool Number Percent Comment Box 6 23% Poll 2 8% Translation 2 8% Calendars 11 42% Video of Meetings 4 15% Online calendars are the most common interactive tool, used by 42% of MPOs. Calendars help increase attendance at public meetings and workshops. Comment boxes appeared on 23% of websites. Only 8% of agencies had an online poll, although more MPOs may offer online surveying during the lead-up to document adoption. Although several agencies offered translated versions of their plan documents, only 8% offered websites with versions in languages other than English, a surprisingly low rate for a state with a high proportion of Spanish-speaking people. Meetings were made available in streaming or podcast format by 15% of Florida’s MPOs. This figure is very low, considering that many more MPOs broadcast their board meetings on local TV channels. Electronic Availability of Documents A major reason for MPOs to publish a website is the efficient distribution of documents. Sections 6001 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU) requires that MPOs make documents available electronically. While these sections do not expressly require documents be posted to a website, an internet presence is the most efficient way to meet this requirement (4). All twenty six of Florida’s MPOs posted their most recent transportation improvement program, unified planning work program, and long range transportation plan (also known as a metropolitan transportation plan) to their website. Several posted obsolete versions of plans, particularly if the newer document was cast as a “plan update” rather than a brand new document. The size and format of documents are important factors to their “user-friendliness.” All twenty six MPOs are using Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) to publish their documents. Acrobat is well known for its portability and near-universal acceptance by computer users. The mean size of a long range transportation plan is 22.46MB. However, document ranged in size from a low of 2MB to a high of 115MB. Smaller size files incur lower data transfer costs and easier to download for dial-up internet connection. However, smaller documents were noted to have less detailed maps, photos, and figures. To compensate for their size, large files (50MB and over) were frequently broken up into multiple “chapters” for easier downloading. Visualization
  7. 7. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 6 Websites afford MPOs the ability to publish the graphics produced by their various information systems. All of Florida’s MPO plans include maps produced by a geographic information system (GIS) or other computerized mapping software. This meets the visualization requirement of Section 6001 of SAFETEA-LU. Twelve MPOs (46%) go beyond the requirement by including maps that are sized larger than a standard computer screen. This enables the user to zoom in on smaller map elements than can be presented on a hard copy page or at standard resolutions on a computer screen. Fourteen agencies (54%) have stand-alone static maps available for download outside of plan documents. These standalone maps enhance intergovernmental coordination because peer agencies are able to download and distribute the map. Half of Florida’s MPOs offered some type of raw data download, which is summarized in Figure 2. The most common type of data download was ArcView shapefiles, which seven agencies offered. Three offered travel demand modeling data, and four offered demographics data. Surprisingly, none of Florida’s MPOs offered web-based GIS maps, such as through an ArcIMS service. Half of agencies offered no type of data download. FIGURE 2- MPO Website Data Download Capability No Downloads GIS Shapefiles Modeling Demographic Multiple Types Business Tools Online distribution and submission of a request for proposal (RFP) or job announcement saves time, money, paper, and manpower. On the whole, MPOs are not taking advantage of their websites for streamlining these business processes. Only six MPOs had a page dedicated to online job listings. Meanwhile, only nine MPOs offered a page for listing RFPs. No RFPs or employment opportunities were available at the time of review, so no evaluation could be made
  8. 8. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 7 of the submission process. It is possible that more agencies offered these types of announcements over their host agency’s website, but this was not reviewed as a part of this project. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Overall, MPOs in Florida are using their websites to support only part of their agency mission. All of Florida’s MPOs are meeting the public notice, visualization, and electronic availability of documents requirements set by state and Federal law. This includes meeting notices, electronic availability of documents, and visualization of transportation projects. However, MPOs are not keeping pace with the internet services offered by city and county governments. Local governments are pushing the envelope to educate and involve the public through so-called “e- democracy” and self-service tools. Local governments are also passively cooperating with each other due to the availability of information on their websites. By bringing their websites up to a functional level similar to local governments’, MPOs will find business is easier and cheaper to transact. Rates of public participation will increase, and the agency will have a higher level of recognition in the community. Some specific recommendations include: • MPOs should make attempts to differentiate themselves from their host agencies. This can be accomplished by creating an agency “brand” of logos, colors, and professionally produced documents. An additional step is to create a unique agency domain name. Successfully branding the MPO will increase public awareness of its mission. • Florida’s MPOs are using their websites to meet their obligations of public information, but are failing to promote public involvement. The most common content of websites are meeting notices and dissemination of final plan document. MPOs that do not enable direct contact from citizens should take immediate steps to connect staff with the public. This is a basic advantage of having a website. Maintaining one that does not have contact information available is nearly useless in terms of public involvement. • Utilize high-bandwidth and “Web 2.0” technology to place public involvement tools directly on MPO websites. Examples of these tools are streaming video, wikis (communal work documents), message boards, and internet surveys. The web can substantially reduce the cost to perform public involvement tasks. Web-based involvement tools can also help the MPO go beyond required levels of public involvement. • MPOs should flatten their administrative structure to empower lower-level professionals to interact with the public and other government agencies. About half of MPOs focused public inquiry on a single staff member, usually the staff director. This creates extra work for senior staff members, and puts a layer of bureaucracy between the public and lower- level staff. MPOs should list direct telephone and email contact information for each professional (planner, engineer, accountant, etc.) staff member. It is also essential to have descriptive position titles or areas of responsibility. • Aim for document file sizes around 1MB per 15 pages, not to exceed 30MB total. This size balances the need for detail with accessibility and cost. Documents can be broken up into multiple files of less than 5MB apiece to make downloads easier for low-speed connections. Any steps taken to reduce the amount of data transferred will correspondingly reduce the bandwidth cost to the agency. • When converting documents for internet publication, care must be taken to convert documents from printed version to electronic copy. Margins and page sizes should fit the
  9. 9. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 8 standard computer screen, and page numbers may need to be adjusted accordingly. Tables of contents should be linked to the body of the document to permit navigation. Maps can have greater detail in the computer file than in the printed copy. All of these issues are exacerbated when the document is formatted for printing on non-standard paper. • MPOs should take steps toward offering GIS, travel demand, demographic projection, and revenue forecasting data for download on their websites. MPOs have substantial software tools at their disposal, such as travel demand models and geographic information systems, which were demonstrated in their planning documents. Relatively few offered raw data for download on the internet. The availability of raw data is an important component of government transparency and intergovernmental coordination. MPOs are in a good position to be an information clearinghouse for their region. • The scope of services for consultant contracts should include tasks that enable better internet services. For example, a consultant responsible for drafting a plan should be required to deliver a document version optimized for internet publishing or original GIS data ready for download. • More MPOs need to offer a listing of RFPs and available jobs with their agency. Certain contractors specialize in MPO work, which is distinct from municipal or state DOT work. Almost all modern job applicants and contractors look online for opportunities, and MPOs may be missing out on qualified applicants if online listings are not made.
  10. 10. Alexander Bond and Jeffrey Kramer 9 References (1) Kramer, Jeffrey and Christina Hopes, Models for Independence: Structures of Independent Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Florida. Transportation Research Record Number 1997. 2007. (2) Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, Profiles of MPOs. 2008. Accessed on 5/2008 from: http://www.ampo.org/directory/index.php (3) Szyliowicz, Joseph S. “Measuring the Effectiveness of Public Involvement Approaches,” TR News 220, Transportation Research Board, Washington DC, May-June 2002. (4) The Transportation Planning Process Key Issues: A Briefing Book for Transportation Decisionmakers, Officials, and Staff. FHWA/FTA Transportation Planning Capacity Building Program , Document Number FHWA-HEP-07-039, September 2007. Accessed on 05/2008 at: http://www.planning.dot.gov/documents/BriefingBook/BBook.htm