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City staff defends maligned Web site
Original post made
on Oct 25, 2007
Nearly three months after the City of Palo Alto's debuted its new, widely unpopular Web site, three of the site's managers maintained Wednesday that the new site is an improvement over the old one.
Read the full story here Web Link
posted Thursday, October 25, 2007, 5:18 PM
Posted by Arthur Keller,
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Oct 30, 2007 at 10:11 am
7. More clicks to content. What used to be available through one click often now takes multiple clicks. Sometimes moving content that used to be on a webpage to a PDF file has added clicks. What used to be found through navigation now often requires search and yet more clicks. That makes it more tedious for users to find what they are looking for. Some webpages that were consolidated in the old website (such as the San Francisquito Creek JPA) are now split into News Article (which appears first in the search) and a Know Zone article. The main Know Zone article does not show up in the search, but several Know Zone articles representing various pieces (repurposings) of the full Know Zone article do show up in the search. In general, the main Know Zone article is an extra click away.
8. Redirections to nowhere. Someone who now accesses a web address that worked on the old website will find the new website will redirect to the new location of the content if the redirection is coded into the new website. If the redirect is not coded into the new website, the new website will try to do a search if the old web address was obtained from a search engine's cache. First, the redirect to the search page does not appear to work on a Macintosh when using the Firefox browser (a blank page appears instead). Second, these old website addresses often came from external links, such as from websites of other public agencies. While search engines caches will automatically "learn" the new addresses over time (but see #9 below), other websites, such as those of other public agencies, will have to be manually updated. Because the City has little or no control over those outside websites, the process of adding such redirects will be ongoing. The process of adding those redirect links would have been easier to do if the old website had been saved (see #11). For example, the Santa Clara Valley Water District website Web Link has a link to the San Francisquito Creek JPA Web site Web Link which causes the new City website to do a search for "jpa/index.html" which in turn results in no matches found. It is far easier for the City to program the redirection than it is for us to get the rest of the world to update their websites accordingly.
9. Incompatibility with commercial search engines. The old web site mainly used navigation (clicking from page to page through "menus" or links in narrative content) for users to get to content. That worked if you knew how to find what you are looking for. It also is compatible with how search engines like Google work. The new website puts much of its content in a database. This database content is not easily accessible by search engines like Google. In November 2006, Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft jointly announced the Sitemap Protocol, so that websites can make their content (including that stored in databases) accessible for search by search engines. (See Web Link and Web Link ) The City's new website does not implement the Sitemap Protocol that would facilitate public search engines, like Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft, to improve search to the new website. Each of these public search engines has invested far more resources in improving search results than any city can or that Civica can. So users are left only with the internal search provided, which often fails to find content (see #4, #7, and #8 above). The City should work with the contractor to implement the Sitemap Protocol to make City website content available more rapidly through public search engines. (See also #13.)
10. Identifying search terms. Search engines provide the search terms to a website when linking to the website. It is not clear from the report dated October 1, 2007 (CMR 371:07) whether the list of searches is from the website's internal search interface or from these search engine referrals. City staff should use the logs in the new website determine popular searches, and not merely rely on the searches from the internal search engine.
11. Removing the old website. The choice to take down existing and old content when bringing up the new website was a big mistake. The website is a useful and critical resource to the public. There would have been little harm from moving the old website to a link where it was still accessible. For example, the home page could have a link to cityofpaloalto.org/oldwebsite/ where the old content would be stored. Then those people who had trouble finding the desired content could do it the old way. The summary removal of old content is especially a problem for Council and Commission reports and minutes, whose importance as reference material does not diminish because they are a few years old. While most CMR's since 2001 have been moved, not all reports of Boards and Commissions have been. Many civic issues are around for years, and the ability to research past analyses and deliberations is critical for those newly elected or appointed to office, as well as members of the public.
As discussed in #8 above, accessing web addresses that worked on the old website often redirect to nowhere by the new website. Had the old website been retained as an accessible archive, the redirect could have instead been to the corresponding place in the archive. Doing so would have been a helpful transition move, even if not permanent. Another way to use the archive would be to search the new website using the title of the corresponding webpage of the old website. Such an automated approach is easily programmed, provides helpful content rather than a useless "no matches found" search result, and yet keeps a user from inadvertently stumbling on the old website. (Through appropriate directives, search engines could be instructed not to index the restored archive website.) This is a case when retaining the old website as an archive is both feasible and useful. Since staff is performing the process of restoring documents to the new website, I assume the old website was saved.
Often new systems need tuning and do not work right the first time. That's why it is standard industry practice to do parallel operation for a period of time when it is feasible to do so. In this case, the new website can be static, without new content being added to it. I recommend that the old website be restored until the process of migrating all content and repairing redirections (see #8) is complete.
12. Comparison with other cities. Local newspapers have compared the cost and results of Palo Alto's web redesign and those of other cities. Their reports indicate that our redesign has cost more, took more time, and resulted in a worse design.
13. Open source. Open source web content management systems exist and should have been considered along with proprietary software that locks us into a single vendor for the long term. The use of open source could reduce acquisition costs, lower maintenance costs by avoiding vendor lock-in, provide more advanced functionality (such as Web 2.0 features), and reduce the potential for creating applications that we will later consider to be legacy applications without easy migration paths. For example, the use of open source content management system would likely allow the changes to implement the Sitemap Protocol to make the City website content available more rapidly through public search engines (see #9). Please note that commercial support is usually available when using open source. Apache is open source webserver software that is used to run more websites than all commercial offerings combined.
14. Community self-service. Part of the reason so much time, energy, and funding went into the website redesign is there was also some software rearchitecting to implement a content management system. Some self-service features have been created (reporting abandoned bicycles, bicycle thefts, car burglaries, lost property, grand theft, petty theft, vandalism (but not graffiti), traffic complaints, leafblower complaints, Shoreline Amphitheatre noice complaints, confidential tips, employee commendations, and complaints) for the police, and reporting code enforcement violations is on the new website, like it was on the old one. There are further opportunities, and I hope that future plans involve implementation of issues like these.
a. Residents and business employees could register for notifications and how they want to be notified through emergency notification system, and update that information themselves when it changes.
b. People could report potholes, graffiti, street lights that are out, leaky sprinklers in parks, etc., and then be notified automatically when the problem has been resolved (if they included an email address).
c. Businesses of any size could annually enter data about their businesses into a free Business Registry that gathers data on all employers within the city. When a business registers, the Business Registry automatically prints out a suitable business license. Staff and Council then have the information they need on local businesses without first having to fight about implementing a Business License Fee. It's better to save that fight for any subsequent taxes the Council might want to impose based on the data obtained through the Business Registry.
V. Community input.
15. Community help and input. Contrast the process for the new website design with the process for choosing a new emergency notification system. In the latter, knowledgeable citizens were brought into a working group with staff to develop requirements, write the Request for Proposals (RFP), and to evaluate responses. In contrast, the new website redesign project was done without involvement by knowledgeable citizens.
16. Web site comment form. The first name, last name, and email address are all listed as optional. There is tiny text that reads, "Please be aware when you email the City, your email address becomes a public record. If you do not wish your email address to be a public record, send your correspondence via postal mail to The City of Palo Alto, Office of the City Clerk." Then there is a checkbox that reads, "I UNDERSTAND AND ACCEPT THE TERMS ABOVE" What terms is the user agreeing to? That the email address they submit is a public record? What about the rest of the content submitted, is that also a public record? Since the user is submitting a form, what does that have to do with sending email to the City? The comment box is small, does not wrap, and displays only two lines. The comment box should be bigger, should wrap, and should scroll vertically (not horizontally as it does now) to facilitate feedback.
But compare that information with the Privacy Notice Information, which states:
"If during your visit to the City of Palo Alto Web Site you participate in a survey, fill out a Web form, or send an email, the following additional information will be collected:
"* The email address and contents of the email; and
"* Information volunteered to complete a Web form or in response to a survey.
"If you send us an email with a question or comment that contains personally identifiable information, or fill out a form that emails us this information, we will only use the personally identifiable information to respond to your request and analyze trends. This may be to respond to you, to address issues you identify, or to further improve our Web site. We may redirect your message to another department, division or program within the City that is in a better position to answer your question. Survey information is used only for the purpose designated."
The Privacy Notice Information has other text indicating that (most) information becomes public record. So the above cited text (and the remainder of the Privacy Notice) should be checked by the City Attorney.
Palo Alto was the first city with its own website (in 1994), which was done pro bono by engineers at Digital Equipment Corporation (a company after several mergers that is now part of HP). Thirteen years later, an expensive bureaucratic procurement process has resulted in a website that many consider a step backward. I recommend that the City staff work with local pro bono resources from residents and businesses to determine how best to proceed, given the sunk cost in time, effort, and money invested in the new redesign. A staff-and-community website review committee can provide advice for how to improve the design, implementation, and usability of the new website. I'm sure that there are knowledgeable and civic minded people who would rather volunteer to help City staff fix the the new website than continue to be frustrated trying to use it as it is.
By taking advantage of pro bono resources available within the community, Palo Alto can have a leading edge website that is easy to use and enhances the delivery of City services; staff, Commission, and Council effectiveness; and citizen participation.
Posted by Herb Borock,
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 31, 2007 at 8:32 pm
Palo Alto Online limits the number of URLs in my comment. Theerfore, I have had to delete links that would make it easier for you to locate information referred to in this post.
Frank Benest began his job as Palo Alto's City Manager on Monday, April 10, 2000.
On Sunday, April 16 2000, the city launched its new web site, as described in this story in the Stanford Daily of April 20, 2000: Web Link
During Benest's tenure as City Manager, the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive crawled the web and displayed for the public a historical record of Palo Alto's web pages that grew to over 50,000 pages by the time that a new web site was launched about August 1, 2007.
The City's news story about the new 2007 web site is no longer available on the City's web site, but is still preserved on Google.
A Capital Improvement Project for a new web site was approved by the Council in June 2005 as part of the 2005-2007 Budget.
The project description mentioned that the then current web site contained over 10,000 pages.
Staff requested Council approval of the contracts for the new web site on January 23, 2006 when staff placed on Council's Consent Calendar a staff report with the contracts attached.
The contracts make clear that it is Creativewerks that was responsible for the web site and that Civica was merely providing the coding for the web site Creativewerks designed.
Task 3 of Creativewerks contract's scope of services at page 27 of 30 of the attachment to the staff report says, "Creativewerks shall produce a Programming Requirements binder to be used by Civica during the programming phase of the CMS [Content Management System] implementation."
Task 5 of Creativewerks contract's scope of services at page 28 of 30 of the attachment to the staff report says, "Creativewerks shall conduct usability testing to address any user issues with the new design."
Civica's scope of work at pages 8 through 13 of the attachment to the staff report appears to indicate that the public acess Internet is on a Civica's server (Deliverable 1 at page 9), while the City's private access Intranet is on the Palo Alto Intranet Server (Deliverable 4 on page 9). If the City's public web site is on a Civica server in Newport Beach, maybe that is why access is so slow compared to the old web site that was a block away from the Palo Alto Internet Exchange.
At the beginning of this year, on January 29, 2007, the City issued a Request for Quotation for Professional Photography Services (RFQ P121151) for the "Provision of 3 Full Days of Photography Services in and aroundthe City of Palo Alto, capturing a sense of living and/or working in Palo Alto, producing thematic municipal artwork such as Library activities, Public Works projects, City personnel such as Fire, Police, and Park service, etc.; City Council sessions, and any other aspect of the City deemed appropriate by the selection committee. The images produced will be entirely the property of the City of Palo Alto, and able to be used for any purpose the City deems
appropriate, however these images are intended for web site
publication. Detailed Scope of Work to be provided by selected
Photograher for this lump Sum are included in Exhibit A.Deliverables to include Digital image files on DVD or CD-ROM."
Pixelpushers, Inc., says "Pixelpushers assisted with the custom programming and flash technology to make this sleek new design interactive and appealing. This design is not like any other governement based web site.' (Web Link)
The staff report recommending Council approval of Creativewerk's and Civica's contracts said the City's web site contained only 2,200 pages, not the over 10,000 pages that existed only 18 months before, but comments to the press this summer from City staff imply that the over 10,000 web pages still exist on the old web site.
The first time the reduction from over 10,000 pages to only 2,200 pages was mentioned was in the Requests for Proposal for the contracts that were sent to potential bidders, but the RFPs were not shown to the Council, because the Council only reviews a limited number of RFPs.
When the new web site was launched there was already a policy initiated by staff to eliminate public access to most of the previous web site's information, despite staff's repeated referral to a web site of over 10,000 web pages, and despite staff's repeated statements that they were busy transferring information from the old web site to the new one.
Staff even included in the new web site the ability to automatically delete press releases after a specified time, so instead of having years of press releases from the City and the Police Department, the news story announcing the launch of the new web site has now been deleted from the web site.
When I learned that Palo Alto's former web site might be available on the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, I accessed that site in early August 2007 and was able to find the addresses of over 50,000 current and former pages from Palo Alto's web site.
However, by Thursday, August 16, 2007, those pages were no longer available because someone in the City of Palo Alto had included code in the root of Palo Alto's web site to block robots crawling the web.
It is clear that the decision to block access to Palo Alto web pages at the Internet Archive was made by Palo Alto and not by its contractor Civica, because all of the government web sites produced by Civica and its parent Pixelpushers, Inc. are available on the Internet Archive, with the possible exception of one site that is currently being updated by Civica.
Pixelpushers, Inc., and its subsidiary Civica don't include Palo Alto's web site in their gallery of web sites, but do include web sites of 40 other government agencies, one of which is not available because it is being reconstructed.
All 39 of the accessible web sites are available on the Internet Archive.
Pixelpushers gallery is at Web Link, Civica shows six of these web sites at Web Link and Web Link, and the latter site also has four additional sites including the site being reconstructed.
The Internet Archive normally does not honor requests to remove and block access to government web pages in accordance with the Library Bill of Rights, but I wondered how a computer could tell that the request from a web site that ends in ".org" is a government web site.
So now I get the following error message when I try to access either the current or former Palo Alto home page on the Internet Archive:
"We're sorry, access ... has been blocked by the site owner ..."
Here is what the Internet Archive says about about why some sites are not available:
"Some sites are not available because of robots.txt or other exclusions. What does that mean?
The Standard for Robot Exclusion (SRE) is a means by which web site owners can instruct automated systems not to crawl their sites. Web site owners can specify files or directories that are disallowed from a crawl, and they can even create specific rules for different automated crawlers. All of this information is contained in a file called robots.txt. While robots.txt has been adopted as the universal standard for robot exclusion, compliance with robots.txt is strictly voluntary. In fact most web sites do not have a robots.txt file, and many web crawlers are not programmed to obey the instructions anyway. However, Alexa Internet, the company that crawls the web for the Internet Archive, does respect robots.txt instructions, and even does so retroactively. If a web site owner decides he / she prefers not to have a web crawler visiting his / her files and sets up robots.txt on the site, the Alexa crawlers will stop visiting those files and will make unavailable all files previously gathered from that site. This means that sometimes, while using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, you may find a site that is unavailable due to robots.txt (you will see a "robots.txt query exclusion error" message). Sometimes a web site owner will contact us directly and ask us to stop crawling or archiving a site, and we endevor to comply with these requests. When you come accross a "blocked site error" message, that means that a siteowner has made such a request and it has been honored."
The ability of a city government to automatically remove its public records history from the Internet Archive appears to be inconsistent with the Internet Archives policy to oppose censorship by government:
"Archivists will exercise best-efforts compliance with applicable court orders. Beyond that, as noted in the Library Bill of Rights, Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment."
My experience has been mixed in replicating searches at google.com and yahoo.com that returned relevant responses in early August 2007 for archival documents from Palo Alto's prior website. Those sites access to archival data on Palo Alto's website may have been blocked, at least in part, for some time.
The ability to rapidly change what is and what is not available opens the possibility that some information that is now not available may be made temporarily available to give the impression that the City is once again providing unfiltered access to its public record on the Internet.
Those of you who believe that only a technical fix will solve the problems with the new web site are missing something more important that is codified in California's Public Records Act and California's open meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act:
Blocking access to Palo Alto government records formerly accessible from the Internet Archive and other sites is in conflict with the Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act.
In the Public Records Act, the California Legislature declared that "access to nformation concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state."
In the Brown Act, the California Legislature declared that "The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."
City staff's belief that it is entitled to block public access to public records apparently is not limited to the general act of blocking access to over 50,000 archival pages formerly available at the Internet Archive, but to choosing which of the pages that were available on the former website should be available on the new website, and how long new pages should stay available on the new web site.
The public needs access to historical public records, including environmental assessments and impact reports, staff reports, meeting minutes, and meeting agendas to be able to participate effectively in the decisions that affect the public's lives and property.
Blocking access to the Internet Archive is similar to telling citizens and newspapers they cannot collect copies of public documents, cannot give copies of documents they already have to anyone else, and cannot make public a list of the documents they already have.
The pattern of behavior of describing a web site of over 10,000 pages, then soliciting contracts for a web site of only 2,200 pages, then removing the news story about the new web site, and blocking access to accumulated historical record of Palo Alto's web site that includes Frank Benest's entire tenure as City Manager leads me to believe that the only way to ensure public access to the information the public had access to before the new web site was launched is for the Council to direct staff to make that information available.
There have been many comments by mostly anonymous people offering comforting suggestions describing why the new web site functions the way it does, blaming the contractor for the web site's problems, volunteering to work with staff to improve the web site, and even having the public, either paid or volunteering their services, make the web site better.
These comforting suggestions enable people to avoid considering an alternative explanation that might be frightening to some of you.
Since it's Halloween, I'll try to scare you by suggesting an alternative explanation for what has happened to Palo Alto's web site.
Maybe the new web site has been deliberately designed at City Manager Frank Benest's direction to eliminate 80% of the information that was available on the old web site, permit newly posted information to be automatically deleted after a short period of time, block access to sites that archive information, block access to already archived web pages that document Benest's entire tenure as City Manager, and block access to already archived web pages that preceded Benest's appointment.
I hope that the Internet Archive has back-up copies of the Palo Alto web pages that are no longer available to the public, and that somebody can educate the operators of the Internet Archive to restore access to those pages regardless of whether Palo Alto staff wants the public to have access.
If so, the Internet Archive can resume saving pages from the new web site.
However, I believe it will take action by the City Council to ensure that the public's business is done in public and that the public record is restored and preserved for public access.
(continue in Part 2 in next post)
Posted by Herb Borock,
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 31, 2007 at 8:39 pm
(Part 2 of post)
I want to share with you below what I have learned about the history of Palo Alto's web site, but I realize my comments are already lengthy and I gave myself a deadline of October 31, 2007.
If my self-imposed deadline prevents me for including anything important below, I'll try to find time to include the missing information in future posts.
When Frank Benest became City Manager he convinced the City Council that the City should sell services to other communities as a way to make money.
The 2001-2003 City Budget at page 120 has as one of its Key Plans for the Administrative Services Department: "In 2001-2003, develop and implement the Information Technology Service Provider (ITSP) initiative to provide information technology services to surrounding communities."
Four years later, in the 2005-2007 budget, as part of the City Manager's plan to cut services to fund infrastructure, the City Council approved the City Manager's proposal to eliminate five positions in the Information Technology Fund (four Senior Technologists and one of four IT Managers).
The effect of this budget cut is explained in the Information Technology Fund section of the budget on page 394 of the 2005-2007 Budget: "The bottom-line effect of the above reductions will be additional workload for staff being transitioned from back-up to primary support as well as for staff who will be taking on new back-up responsibilities. The effect on management will be an increase in direct reports and additional project management responsibilities. Due to staff reductions, it will be necessary to contract for consulting services for any enterprise application upgrades. There will potentially be increases in service delivery times until staff is sufficiently trained in their new roles and become accustomed to the increased workload."
One of the projects that was affected was the Capital Improvement Project for the Internet Site Upgrade (TE-05003) that was approved in the previous year's budget.
It may be helpful to to review the Project Description and Project Justification for the Internet Site Upgrade that appear on page 384 of the 2004-2005 Budget:
"PROJECT DESCRIPTION: The purpose of this project is to refresh, standardize, and update the City's internet website. The website was created over ten years ago and has undergone extensive expansion and growth over the years. The software tools used to build the website are to a great extent, freeware and shareware programs. This non-standard approach to developing a website of this size (currently over 10,000 pages) makes maintenance and updating extremely difficult. The proposal is to build a parallel website duplicating the functionality of the current using mainstream standardized software.
"We want to improve the ease-of-use for locating information. To this end, we are also proposing to include the functionality of a robust search engine. The purpose of including this capability is to enhance the user's ability to locate information on our website efficiently.
"PROJECT JUSTIFICATION: The City's website is in need of re-design and streamlining. This project's intent is to accomplish this goal, which will result in simplified and more effective user interaction with the site."
On page 385 of the 2004-2205 Budget, it says, "This project furthers Policy G-3 and Programs G-4, G-5, and G-6 in the Comprehensive Plan."
That Policy and those Programs appear on pages G-5 and G-6 of the Comprehensive Plan and say,
"POLICY G-3: Enhance communication between residents, organizations, and the City Council by providing access to information via electronic media and other methods."
"PROGRAM G-4: Establish a City/neighborhood liaison system using electronic and print media to inform residents of current issues and facilitate resident feedback to the City Council and staff."
"PROGRAM G-5: Create electronic bulletin boards to increase opportunities for interaction between citizens and government, including the posting of meeting agendas and other items of broad interest."
"PROGRAM G-6: Provide advanced communication opportunites for the public at City libraries."
The Future Financial Requirement of the project were approved at $240,000 for Fiscal Year 2004-2005.
When the 2005-2007 Budget cut five positions from Information Technology, the Budget continued the enterprise program of selling services to other cities.
The financial information for the Information Technology Service Provider program appears in the CPA External Services section of the Budgets for 2001-2003 (page 615), 2002-2003 (page 227), 2003-2005 (page 399), 2004-2005 (page 197), 2005-2007 (page 335), 2006-2007 (page 219), and 2007-2009 (page 329).
Except for the current year, the services provided to other cities and towns are also listed in the Budget: IT Help Desk Services and On-Site Support Services; Web Services; IT Consulting Services; Application Services; and Geographical Information System Services.
At the same time that the City has cut five staff positions in Information Technology and attempted to "refresh, standardize, and update the City's internet website", it has provided IT services under contract to Los Altos, East Palo Alto, Emeryville, Menlo Park, Atherton, Los Altos Hills, Alameda, Saratoga, and Morgan Hill.
Some of those cities and towns have website home pages with the look and feel of Palo Alto's old website whose "non-standard approach to developing a website ... makes maintenance and updating extremely difficult."
Go to any of those other cities and towns websites and try to access the same kind of information that you have tried to access from Palo Alto's new website and see which websites you like better.
With this background, the City hired a new Senior Technologist, Chris Caravalho, to oversee the planning and implementation of the new website that was already budgeted for $240,000 and that was already planned to eliminate freeware and shareware programs.
Caravalho reports to Information Technology Manager Lisa Mainarick-Bolger, who reports to Deputy Director of Adminstrative Services and Chief Information Officer Glenn Loo, who reports to Director of Administrative Services Carl Yeats, who reports to City Manager Frank Benest, who reports to the City Council, who are elected by the voters.
I mention the chain of command, because in some bureaucratic organizations there is a tendency to blame the lowest ranking employee whenever there is a public relations problem.
In early August 2007, when the new website was first released, I was able to search for related information on the Internet, some of which is no longer available.
One of my searches was for "Caravalho" and "Palo Alto", and the search returned the following relevant information, including five bulleted paragraph explaining why Caravalho believed he was the only Senior Technologist who could do the job he did for the City.
Unfortunately, the five bulleted paragraphs were blacked out on the web page I retrieved as if somebody had censored them, so I simply copied the page to WordPad, and by magic the blacked out paragraphs appeared.
My repeated copying and pasting from one document to another has led to some incompatible encoding problems; I have copy edited the text below to eliminate extraneous special characters that were not in the original I first copied. I hope my clean-up work doesn't make a mess of things when you receive this.
[The web page I located (Web Link) has since been removed from the web, but I retained the copy that appears below.]
I currently am employed as a Senior Technologist for the City of Palo Alto.
You may be wondering how I got this precious job. Let me tell you, it
wasn't easy. A committee of ten City employees interviewed me twice for the position. The interviews were in an oral examination format.
A number of the individuals on the committee were highly technical, and at least one is a talented PR manager. This was a tough position to take. I later found out that IT layoffs were around the corner and that my position was so specialized that none of the staff who would later be laid-off could have filled it. No pressure...
For the last year, my primary responsibility has been the planning and
implementation of Capital Improvement Project TE-05003 (Internet Site
Upgrade). This project involves the redesign of the City of Palo Alto's web site. The project budget (external costs) is in the $200,000 range.
When I came on board, the scope of this project was up to me. Due to the long-term vacancy of my position, only the most rudimentary web site administration had been performed over the last 2 years. The City wanted to identify a content management system (CMS) vendor to fulfill this task. I assessed the problem and suggested a shift in the strategy to complete the CIP. Rather than look for one do-it-all CMS, I thought we should look for both a CMS vendor and a graphic designer. We wrote an Request for Proposal (RFP) to do just this.
The writing of the RFP required a special kind of deep domain knowledge.
The City had experienced life with a both a traditional webmaster
(centralized management) and no webmaster (de-centralized management), and was not fully satisfied with either approach. The traditional model seemed to bottleneck at the webmaster and choked content creation, while the de-centralized model produced unacceptable chaos in the form of bad design, stale content and hundreds of broken links. Utilizing my experience as both an IT Director (SleepQuest, Inc.) and Consultant (RDCinteractive, LLC), as
well as seven years of rapid web page development in a production
environment. I produced several models upon which I was able to base a
proposed solution to this problem. The models ranged from physical site maps, to conceptual taxonomies. Some of the models focused on the scope of work, and others on a business analysis of how the workflow operated. A unique solution to the City's information architecture was also rendered.
Using these models, City staff was able to visualize and agree upon the scope of the problem and the impact of various decisions. The way was clear to move forward.
The question was asked of me, recently, "Couldn't another of the Senior Techs have done what you did?" I don't believe so, and here's why:
This was not a new problem, it had plagued the City for years. The
problem was urgent and important, so much so that it drew the attention of City Council and was deemed a Capital Improvement Project (like streetimprovements). If existing staff was capable of solving this problem, they would have done so, especially after funding was allocated by the CIP.
This was a multi-dimensional problem. The solution had to contain not
only the technical answer, but also satisfy business logic and politics. Departmental branding issues were perceived as a major roadblock. Only someone who was expert in web administration, production, information architecture, project management, and application development could see the entirety of the problem. Furthermore, this individual had to possess leadership qualities and have the desire to evangelize the new project to the Org. These requirements greatly narrowed the scope of potential candidates for this position.
The proposed solution required enormous resources to prepare. Every one of the 2200 web pages had to be physically touched. Most of the web pages needed to be fixed and moved. Had a novice staff member attempted this task, it would have taken months to complete (if ever). My production background brought numerous efficiencies to the table that allowed the task to be completed successfully in mere weeks.
Vendor selection required deep domain expertise. Prior to my arrival, the preliminary RFP called for the selection of a CMS vendor, and nothing more. By asking for both CMS and Graphic Design vendors, I created an opportunity for the City to specify additional requirements, reducing our exposure to catastrophe. These additional requirements were based of knowledge derived from the examination of physical and conceptional models that the CIty did not have prior to my recruitment. Additionally, my background as a vendor brought insight to the RFP committee in terms each vendor's ability to deliver what was promised.
During the six month RFP process, it was necessary for me to also maintain the existing web site, hosted on BSD Unix, much of which was hacked perl scripts, an "autonomous world of shareware," the legacy of the previous webmaster. Also, the existing web server was suffering from age-related problems, and the Server Administrator needed the help of a Webmaster with knowledge of TCP-IP, DNS, Apache Config, FTP and UNIX, to migrate the site to a new web server. The City standard is Windows, so only a few on Staff
are familiar with *NIX administration. My background in systems
administration allowed IT to seamlessly transition the web site to a new BSD
server without affecting the customer's quality of service during the
In preparation for the interviews with the City, I not only brought the
requisite resume, I prepared a report entitled, "Managing Organizational
Change with Information Technology - The Application of Japanese Business
Innovation Dynamics to Government Information Technology Project Management
and Knowledge Creation." This bound report condensed research from
numerous authoritative sources about how to create knowledge chains, as well
as examples, and introduced my own knowledge management philosophies. I
reasoned that every candidate would be somewhat qualified for the position,
and sought to differentiate myself. I distributed this report to the
committee at the end of the first interview. This tactic was successful
because it demonstrated a) critical thinking, b) writing skills, c)
knowledgeability, and d) salesmanship. Combined with my genuine desire to
take the position, and my background experience, this approach was
sufficient to obtain employment with the City of Palo Alto.
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