There was quite the firestorm yesterday about the City of Vancouver’s “3 million dollar website”. On the surface it sounds insane to spend that much on a website and I agree if that’s all you were buying, but it’s not. Sure that’s what it looks like on the surface and the assumption by most is that the old site was one seamlessly working system that managed its content, was connected to the city’s services, like buying a dog license, paying parking tickets, and community centre activity calendars.
The reality, however, is very different, and was most likely a tangled mess of disparate systems that were up to 15 years old. That likely meant an endless amount of effort and workarounds to just keep the site up and running, let alone publishing new content. This was not a simple matter of grabbing the old content, polishing it off and stuffing it into a WordPress site like many on Twitter have suggested. The other thing to consider is that as the city site grew over time. Sections and content were bolted on with little or no global strategy on how all the pieces fit together in one master plan.
Ultimately, it was a comprehensive reassessment of:
- Content: how it could be more relevant or accurate and up to date
- Workflow: how all of the content was published by all of the civic departments
- Usability: what could be made more user friendly and how?
- Technology: what system would best power the site
I can only imagine the amount of effort it would take to gather all of the new requirements from all of the city’s various departments. Probably six months to a year alone of requirements gathering, then obtaining broad consensus within a large bureaucracy on the strategy moving forward. Add to that the inevitable revisions and debates. It all adds up to considerable amounts of time and money spent. But well spent. A huge project like this makes the entire organization, or city in this case, realize how poor and dated their content is in the first place. And without a content plan you can’t even begin to map out what the site is going to actually be and, more importantly, do for potentially millions of users.
Planning & Usability
Once all of the requirements and content plan are in place there needs to be a plan on how it all comes together in the site. This takes a ton of planing; asking questions from users, usability design, and testing. You could easily add another three months in this phase of the project.
Now comes visual design which is a delicate balance of look and feel and what actually works well from a usability perspective. Design is always subjective and you can burn through many cycles of redesigns. But I suspect in the case of the City of Vancouver’s site, this was actually not one of of the larger costs.
There is plenty of debate about whether or not the city chose both the best and most cost effective platform. One could easily argue that they did choose one of the most expensive proprietary web technologies out there, one based on a licensed Microsoft platform. There are certainly much cheaper options and I can’t claim to know why that discussion was made. Many IT departments write the website specifications and quite often it ends up being Microsoft’s offering. Typically, it can cost upwards of $200/hr for an outsourced agency to program in this language. But it is often the only option due to resourcing issues within an internal IT department for a project of this scale.
This is not just a website, but rather a custom built technology platform that has to replace many antiquated systems and needs to incorporate many different processes and functions. You also have to consider where that data was initially being stored and processed, as well as whether or not it could be leveraged or had to be levelled and recreated from scratch based on efficiency of workflows and technologies. In the latter case, it would need to be custom built from scratch, resulting in more than a few months of development.
I am not hearing much discussion about the return on investment either, to be frank. The return on investment was most likely calculated in the initial budget and I suspect that the sum total of reduced systems, processes and manual labour required to keep the site up to date and running smoothly will be vastly reduced in just a few short years. I also suspect the manual labour costs for keeping the former site’s code up to date were huge.
A civic website is now the main conduit in which the public interface with their local government. As such, it should function well on all fronts, including some of the following:
- Delivering the latest and most accurate content for all aspects of local government, including dynamic calendar and scheduling applications for things like community centers and other programs
- Housing and managing all of the historical data and minutes from council meetings
- Storing and cataloguing council documents
- Housing all rezoning applications
- Documenting all processes that you may be required to do for any number of things, including:
◦ Fire regulations
◦ Rules around your responsibility for curbside garbage collection
- Producing live updates and maps on road construction
- Making it easy to contact the right official for maintenance of trees in parks and on streets
- Viewing your property tax balance
- Offering online payment systems for:
◦ dog licences
◦ parking tickets
- Being easy to use and navigate
- Being easily extendable for future additions
- Integrating with all or most of the city’s backend systems
- Seamlessly publishing workflows on the backend that reduce time and labour involved.
Was $3 million too much to pay for a web platform as complex as one required for a city of this size?
It really depends on how you look at it. From what I have been seeing in the press and social media, little beyond look and feel and platform are being discussed.
Could it have been done for less?
Absolutely it could have. But whether or not it would have done the job properly we will never know. There are many approaches that could have been taken, some more progressive than others. But the approach that Vancouver took with its agency’s is pretty standard for a project of this size and scope.
Was it worth the money?
This will be up to the politicians,bureaucrats and, ultimately, we taxpayers, to determine and make public. I would hope that ROI was always in the plan.
At the end of the day the city has a new web platform that if designed correctly should last at least another 15 years.
The following was a guest post by JP Holecka.
JP Holecka is the creative strategist and owner of POWERSHiFTER, a Vancouver digital marketing agency, that serves a diverse list of clients that includes Energizer, the Vancouver Canucks and TELUS.