[highlight_404_links]This article was written by Tess Gauthier, Project Coordinator at the Snelling Center for Government

The Snelling Center for Government (SCG) is building local government capacity and better engaging citizens in local affairs throughout Vermont. Through our partnership in the Vermont Digital Economy Project, SCG has already launched 15 municipal websites so far in Vermont’s flood impacted towns. By the end of the project, we will foster better communication and engagement in 20 Vermont communities through new or improved websites.

In towns including Mendon, East Montpelier, and Sutton, we have collaborated with local government officials and the communities they serve in order to build and launch brand new town websites. With these powerful digital tools, towns are better positioned to disseminate critical information to residents in the event of a disaster. A well-planned and supported website offers town officials an effective way to transparently connect with citizens. Through the sites, officials are now able to post up-to-date Selectboard minutes and provide the information needed for citizens to engage with their local government.

Our process ensures that we are building websites that carefully reflect the communities served by the Vermont Digital Economy Project. We partnered with Vermont Leadership Network (VLN) alumni to host Community Discussions in each town as the first step towards a site creation, with the goal of understanding from local residents how we can make a town website useful to them. In conversations around the state, we use our local findings to help inform the content development of the site.

“The Vermont Digital Economy Project was critical in helping East Montpelier get the town website up from start to finish,” said Bruce Johnson, the Town and Zoning Administrator of East Montpelier, “We really valued the hands-on, community inclusive approach that the Snelling Center for Government used. SCG hosted a community discussion, inviting local residents to share views on what they want and need from a town website, providing us with a wealth of information.”

We used the feedback from these discussions to create a menu and navigational structure for every site that fit with what was important to each town. From there, we applied the structure to our municipal site template. This template is created by TimeWave Media through the WordPress Content Management System, a popular and relatively easy-to-use platform for site creation and curation. In addition, our template is also responsive, meaning that it is easy to navigate on a number of different screens, from smart phones to tablets, to desktop computers.

We also worked with towns who already had websites, but needed an upgrade. These towns include Wilmington, Halifax, and Royalton, where we worked with local officials to upgrade outdated Content Management Systems and to migrate the content to a more commonly used platform. By breaking down some of the barriers for town website managers, such as clunky back-ends and tight administrative control by a third party, we have allowed these towns to have more direct control over their own site and content.

To further this end, each town benefits from onsite training. Our VLN alumni walk town managers and administrators through the basics of how to post to and update the site, so as to ensure the continued maintenance andsustainability of the website after the project closes. During this training, they also discuss best practices, which include everything from the types of content that should be included in a municipal site, to the ideal resolution of images that are posted online.

“The on-site training SCG provided to town officials on how to manage the content and best practices enabled us to produce a viable and effective website that improves communication with citizens and serves as a source of emergency information when necessary,” said East Montpelier’s Bruce Johnson.

Paul Broha, Chair of the Planning Commission in Sutton, VT, agrees. “We benefited from the on-site training on how to manage content, best practices, and getting acquainted with the content management system,” he said.

To date, we have logged over 200 hours of Vermont Leadership Network Alumni Volunteer time. We continued to be humbled by the opportunity to carry out the critical work of integrating digital tools to build more resilient communities.

“Working with the Snelling Center for Government made developing a website for our town more manageable,” said Paul Broha of Sutton.” In the aftermath of the Spring Floods in 2011 we were not able to communicate quickly and efficiently with residents. Because we have a website in place now, we feel better positioned to engage with residents in both emergency and non-emergency situations.”