City Counseling: Website Redesign Crashes

City goes back to the drawing board

Plans to award a contract redesigning the city of Austin website hit the municipal equivalent of Microsoft's blue screen of death last week. Once word spread via social networks that California firm Cignex Tech­nol­ogies was the staff-recommended firm for the job – over two local firms which had also applied – online indignation erupted. Follow­ing Twitter-facilitated outcries and insulted yelps from local Web designers, late Wed­nes­day last week, the city pulled the item from the council agenda. "We've made a decision to defer Council action on the web redesign contract in order to allow time for our new Chief Communications Director and Chief Information Officer to fully review options and offer the best solution based on their professional expertise," said City Manager Marc Ott in a statement, noting "the most prudent course of action is to give them the time to analyze all options and offer a solution that best meets the needs of both our residents and of the organization."

In online parlance, these n00bs would be Communications Director Doug Matthews and CIO Gail Roper. Former CIO Pete Col­lins resigned after a lengthy city investigation and allegations of wrongdoing; at City Hall, it's believed that his unceremonious departure slowed the city's long-promised website redesign, Austin GO, which was first rolled out almost a year and a half ago.

At council last Thursday, a clearer sense of the project emerged. A fact sheet prepared by the city's communications office defended the staff reco by saying: "One of the subcontractors on this project is a local firm and is projected to receive 15.84% of the participation. The other subcontractor is Houston-based and is projected to receive 18.57% of the participation. That means that over 34% of the participation is from Texas." The answer to the broader question – why so few local firms responded – may lie with specifics of the city's request for qualifications: "Most local firms did not have the specific expertise in the selected Content Managements system" – an open-source programming language called Zope/Plone the city intranet already runs on.

The site redesign has already become an issue in the mayoral race. Before it got pulled, Brewster McCracken declared: "Investing taxpayer funds for Web operations only makes sense if the investment dramatically improves government efficiency and stimulates the local economy. I am not satisfied that the website redesign proposal before council meets either objective." McCracken said that for the money, the site should allow online bill paying for city services and obtaining other city services that currently require a phone call. Lee Leffingwell, who initiated the Austin GO project, also supported the delay. The question now is what form the redesign proposal will take when the item reappears – likely in about a month, says Ott. Is the city simply waiting for controversy to die down before trotting out the same proposal, or will it reboot the contract?

Free Association

The other big takeaway from last week's council meeting was a presentation on Downtown street closures for big events: among the recommendations, a city website listing all upcoming closures and detours.

On the agenda this week, April 2: a plethora of feel-good ordinances from council, including official support of Lemonade Day 2009. The most substantial items from council are a pair of Earth Day-inspired resolutions: participation in a regional air-quality improvement agreement known as "the Big Push" (Item 32); as well as a review of light-conserving measures for city buildings. In that spirit, and with this airy agenda, the lights should be out early at City Hall this Thursday.

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