Newport Advances Toward ‘Virtual City Hall’

By Olga Enger

Municipal tasks such as paying a fee or applying for a permit are completed at Newport City Hall today, but these functions will eventually be a click away.

The Newport City Council unanimously approved spending $78,000 on two separate initiatives toward the long-discussed goal of an interactive, all-inclusive system at their Jan. 25 regular meeting.

One contract was awarded to OpenGov, a company out of Silicon Valley, to develop and host a cloud-based solution for budgeting, financial reporting and data access. The company provides interactive, web-based financial reporting software that will be integrated into the city’s website. OpenGov guarantees “easily understood charts and graphs that are based on the city’s financial data.”

The cost to implement OpenGov is $53,900 in the first year and $49,000 annually for the following four years.

The license allows a comparative analysis with other municipalities. Middletown already has implemented an OpenGov system, which integrates the school budget, approved town budget and actual spending (middletownri.opengov.com).

Middletown’s OpenGov users may run one of the predefined reports to answer questions such as “What are the town’s property tax revenues?” or “What are the expenditures of the Middletown School Department?”

Additionally, users may compare actual spending against the proposed budget or filter data by department, expense category, or type of fund.

OpenGov defines stakeholders as both taxpayers and government officials, who will benefit from the unified platform throughout the budget process and will be able to track spending throughout the year. The objective is to minimize dependence on emails, hallway conversations and spreadsheets to share budget-related data between departments and the public. The company also claims to improve municipal accountability by providing an audit trail of the budget approval process.

In a separate agenda item, councilors unanimously approved a $25,000 contract with the technology company Gopi Bala of Northborough, Massachusetts to define the requirements and oversee the implementation of a new city website. The first phase of the project will consist of information-gathering sessions to collect requirements from the council, city staff and members of the public. This phase will take up to six weeks and will cost taxpayers $11,016.

During the second phase, Gopi Bala will assist the administration in evaluating the feedback and will oversee the website development at an hourly rate of $105. The company will be prohibited from bidding on the development work itself.

A push to pull City Hall “out of City Hall” began in 2012 as one of the four major priorities in the strategic planning process. As a first step, then-City Manager Jane Howington conducted a series of public informational meetings at locations such as the Quaker Meeting House, Fort Adams, the Maritime Center and Easton’s Beach Rotunda.

Also in 2012, City Council awarded a $32,000 contract to Vision Internet Providers to design and implement a new city website. The city pays $6,000 annually for the website, which includes maintenance, unlimited hosting services, upgrades and new features.

As part of that package, the California based company also included a redesign after four years. However, the city is moving in a different direction because the scope for the future website is beyond a makeover.

“We are not looking for a redesign, but a whole new site,” City Finance Director Laura Sitrin told Newport This Week. Officials have described the future website as a “virtual city hall” where residents may complete all functions online that are done in person today.

The proposed new website will combine the current city site and the Engage Newport site into one, according to the approved resolution.

Engage Newport (engagenewport.com) was developed pursuant to a $65,000 city contract with Worldways Social Marketing in 2013. Since the initial contract, the city has continued to use the company to circulate a monthly electronic newsletter and disseminate city-related information through Engage Newport and on social media.

The most recent advance in expanding the walls of City Hall was in 2016, when the city partnered with SeeClickFix, a digital communications platform, to launch the “Report It!” app for residents to report non-emergency issues. Once entered into the system, city officials may track and manage issues and post status reports. Users may access the app through their mobile device or the Engage Newport website.

By OpenGov
Published: February 2, 2017
Source: Newport Advances Toward ‘Virtual City Hall’