The City Tries to Fix Its Website – Again

City is looking for a new team to rebuild austintexas.gov


The city’s website has been a problem for years (art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images)

In the summer of 2021, the Chronicle reported on a decision by city officials to stop work on a new website to replace austintexas.gov, Austin’s official online presence, which has been criticized for years as sloppy and confusing. The developers of the proposed replacement, called “Alpha,” told us the project’s abandonment was shortsighted. They said it would be only a matter of time before the city once again gave up on austintexas.gov and spent millions of dollars to replace it.

That prediction seems to be coming true. Last August, the city’s Communications & Public Information Office (CPIO) and Commun­i­ca­tions & Technology Management (CTM) Department, which share responsibility for austintexas.gov, released a request for proposal for a retooled website. Fourteen developers had submitted bids by October. A spokesperson told us the city is currently evaluating the bids and has made no decision yet on which to accept.

In 2017, the Office of the City Auditor released a report saying that austintexas.gov was so difficult to use that it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In the RFP, the city said it is seeking “a modern [website] focused on a personalized customer experience which is both intuitive and efficient.” Since its debut in 2012, austintexas.gov has been acknowledged, even by the city, as a website that is neither intuitive nor efficient. In 2017, the Office of the City Auditor released a report saying that austintexas.gov was so difficult to use that it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, effectively discriminating against the visually impaired with its insufficient screen readers and making it hard for all users to understand with its college-level language, non-intuitive interface, and tangled links.

The city announced its intention to replace the website and assembled a team to do so shortly after the 2017 audit report. That team, the Office of Design and Delivery, worked for over two years at a cost, our sources estimated, of approximately $4 million. But in October of 2020, leaders at CTM and CPIO pulled the plug on the project, even though the ODD workers had assured them it would be complete within six months. The city told us in a 2021 statement that Alpha did not “instill confidence in the product.” They pledged to migrate the work done on Alpha into austintexas.gov.

In the end, the issues plaguing austintexas.gov were only somewhat addressed, our sources told us. Now, in its request for proposal, the city is tacitly acknowledging the same. CTM and CPIO say they want the new site to be “user-friendly and intuitive to use so that it is willingly accepted and used by all City of Austin Departments.” They are specifying that it work well on mobile devices; have translation management services; and include automated machine translations driven by artificial intelligence. Ironically, these are the same qualities that our sources say they were incorporating into Alpha four years ago.

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