Government Website Redesigns Bleed Taxpayers Dry

Shutterstock and Reuters/ By and Jim Bourg

Ross Marchand Director of Policy, Taxpayers Protection Alliance
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To most, dating represents a chance to find the person of their hopes and dreams. But to administrator/controller Margaret McAvoy of Isabella County, Michigan, finding a company for a website redesign is “kind of like being on a date; this company got us.”

The company she smittenly refers to is Web Ascender, which is charging $65,700 for a comprehensive redesign that will include a survey of needs for county departments and a comprehensive search function.

While the Isabella County thinks they’ve found the best suitor, taxpayers are an unwilling party to a deal that costs several times more than necessary. And unfortunately, this unwanted arrangement happens far too often for all levels of government.

In December 2016, the city commission of Grand Rapids, Michigan, tapped OpenCities Inc. for a three-year $311,470 web redesign contract. The total costs for the project amounted to an astounding $625,000. Instead of bilking taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary costs, governments should look to low-cost models going forward.

To a city commission or state agency, spending more than $100,000 for a sleek new website can seem like a drop in the bucket, with costs paling in comparison to virtually any other undertaking. When it comes to spending and taxation, red ink stems from a thousand (lack of) cuts. But the evidence against overspending isn’t hard to find.

Across the country, large businesses and government bodies are able to engineer complex redesigns and build-outs for upwards of $25,000. For example, Orlando International Airport’s redone site contains a myriad of information on live flights, business partners and a food/entertainment guide. At the low cost of $25,000, airport users can get easy, up-to-date information to make their journey a pleasant experience.

The City of Houston accomplished an even more amazing feat in February, adding an array of informational pages and a 100-language translation function at zero extra cost to taxpayers.

City officials were able to pull off this feat because, in lieu of design consultants, the Houston government engineered a Digital Design Challenge, in which finalists presented proposed website designs to a task force led by the Mayor’s Office of Communications, Office of Innovation and Houston Information Technology Services Department. Awards of $1,000 to each finalist proved sizeable-enough to trigger an avalanche of entries without breaking the bank. The actual redesign was made possible via in-house resources, in stark contrast to the inflated contracts drawn up by Isabella County and Grand Rapids.

A key issue behind the different approaches is transparency; compare Houston’s easily accessible award information to Michigan municipalities’ lack of similar information. Incomplete information fails to show which companies were awarded contracts, leaving taxpayers to pay for bills they cannot fully make sense of or know the details of.

When citizens are kept in the dark about contracts made with their tax dollars, there is little incentive for governments to keep costs low. The consequences are far greater than overspending; research suggests that “reputation and public trust in public agencies might be irrevocably lost if low-quality data is disclosed.” And public officials hope that a fancy and shiny new website will make up for the lack of transparency.

Honest governance can be bolstered with a few simple transparency reforms that encourage the public to be actively engaged in the contracting process. Having states push localities into adopting an Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) would keep contracts in the light of day for every step of the process.

The standard, which is currently being piloted in Canada and the UK, would require the public sector to publish data in real time for every phase of the contract completion process. In addition, summary records for each contract would be available for the public to see, resulting in less of a reliance on independent reports.

Even though state-led efforts like “Ohio Checkbook” lack comprehensive breakdowns of how money is spent within each contract, even mapping out awards by time, location and agency is a promising start for engaging the public.

In the coming years, many municipalities and state governments will have to make difficult decisions about how to budget website redesigns and build-outs. Whether they go about these digital projects in an affordable way will depend on their resolve to keep spending low and transparent.

Sometimes the best way forward is not a “date” with a sky-high bill, but rather an in-house operation that can save hard-earned taxpayer money.

Ross Marchand is the director of policy at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.