Extension broadband effort targets local governments

Extension broadband effort targets local governments By Keri Collins Lewis
MSU Ag Communications

Local municipal governments are providing insight into their use of the Internet so the Extension Broadband Education and Adoption Team can develop recommendations to improve services to residents and businesses.
Roberto Gallardo, assistant Extension professor at Mississippi State University’s Southern Rural Development Center, said the survey results are a gold mine of helpful information about the state’s municipalities, one of e-BEAT’s core audiences.
“We surveyed the city clerks in incorporated city and town governments,” he said. “About 51 percent of 294 municipalities responded, which is a strong response rate. Fewer than half of those responding have a website, and even fewer offer online services citizens use but may prefer to handle online. Not having a website decreases the amount of information available to residents and decreases their ability to participate in local affairs.”
E-BEAT, which is tasked with educating Mississippians about the benefits of broadband, plans to use a curriculum developed by national Extension colleagues to encourage municipalities to have an online presence. Regional coordinators are meeting with interested government leaders to plan community training events.
Gallardo said all of the reporting municipalities indicated they have access to the internet, but that the cost, lack of knowledge and security concerns make them reluctant to have a website.
“We’re developing a template for municipal governments and will do a major training this summer to give interested municipalities a step-by-step way to develop a website,” Gallardo said. “They can post emergency information and meeting minutes and increase their visibility to potential residents and businesses.”
Without a presence on the Web, communities diminish their opportunities for economic development, because businesses are conducting much of their research online.
“If your community is not out there, people won’t be interested in either establishing a business or becoming new community members,” Gallardo said. “Mississippi municipalities need to increase their online presence to become more visible and increase public engagement, which will have a positive impact on communities.”
In addition to making a community more attractive to prospective residents and community developers, a website can engage current residents in local government.
“People expect transparency from their local officials now more than ever,” he said. “I like that I can find my city’s budget online, as well as information on local issues so I can be prepared for city council meetings or community dialogue.”
Gallardo pointed to the city of Biloxi as an example of a municipality with a significant online presence.
“Not only can you pay your auto tag, water bill and your property taxes online, you can search court records, learn about storm water management plans and access permit applications,” he said. “If citizens will communicate their expectations to their local officials, these leaders will see there is a need and figure out a way to meet that demand.”
Sumner Davis, interim director of the MSU Extension Service’s Center for Governmental Training and Technology, said municipal websites should offer basic information about a community.
“In today’s world, the website is the front door to any community. Local governments should post online the fundamental information that people look for — amenities, services and contact information for city staff, departments and elected officials,” he said.
Municipalities can start with the essentials and add information and services as they gauge their communities’ needs.
“An effective website for a local government, at a minimum, should include a schedule of meetings and hearings, current ordinances and policies and procedures,” Davis said. “You can further enhance your website to allow people to check more specific things, such as their balances for utility bills, or to allow them to pay fees online.
“Municipal websites offer elected and appointed city officials another way to communicate with their constituents. As more and more people look online for information, it’s only natural that they would look for their local government’s website,” he said.
To connect with a local e-BEAT coordinator and schedule a presentation or workshop, go to http://srdc.msstate.edu/ebeat or call Gallardo at 325-9426.