One would think granting citizens around-the-clock access to their local government offices and officials might be met with some resistance. O’Fallon, IL, deputy clerk Maryanne Fair loves it.
“Our municipal Website is like having city hall open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” she says. “My office is only open from 8:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M., but even after hours, people can still find what they need.”
Making Public Information Public
O’Fallon has been using Laserfiche since 2002, and they implemented their WebLink public portal as a part of their initial system. Working with Laserfiche reseller EDCO Group, the WebLink public portal opened all but select parts of the city’s Laserfiche content server.
Laserfiche was customized with a file tree structure broken down into nine main entries covering different departments in City Hall. Each of those was then broken down again into folders that reflected the range of documents each department was responsible for. According to IT Director John Presley, this file structure was selected to make information easier to find for casual searchers, as curious residents searching city documents account for a lot of the traffic on the site.
After a brief promotional effort around the community, City Hall started fielding calls seeking information on the WebLink public portal. It appears now that all the customization paid off as document inquiries have dropped off dramatically, according to City Clerk Phil Goodwin.
“Basic research questions have gone down by as much as two-thirds because people are already finding the info they need on their own,” he adds.
Freedom from FOIA Requests
Freedom of Information Act requests used to be an unpleasant subject around the offices of O’Fallon City Hall. It wasn’t the public’s right to access government records that bothered staff so much as the work involved in providing that access. FOIA requests, as they are better known, can be vexing for city clerks that must respond to them. When submitted by laypersons in the community, they can be poorly worded and difficult to understand and respond to. When professionals file FOIA requests, they can be tedious and complex tasks requiring dozens—even hundreds—of hours to fulfill.
So, when a couple of attorneys filed a FOIA request for documents related to an O’Fallon construction project last year, the request looked like it would take two staffers a month each to fulfill. Then one of those staffers suggested sending the attorneys to the city’s WebLink public portal.
That was the last staff heard of that FOIA request.
“We sent them an e-mail about WebLink and they did the rest,” Presley says. “They found everything they needed right there. It turned out to be a tremendous time saver for us—and for them.”
Presley points out the cost-effectiveness of having documents available through the WebLink public portal. “That FOIA request would have taken two staffers a full month to fill without WebLink,” he says. “With WebLink, the attorneys could search our documents themselves, which saved us thousands of dollars for just that one request.”
FOIA requests have dropped by at least 50 percent since the WebLink portal has been available, and a lot of the traffic comes from contractors doing business with the city, Presley says. They can submit RFPs much more quickly using WebLink because they can call up old contracts and cut and paste much of the perquisite text.
An Eye to the Future
Last year six gigabytes of O’Fallon forms and files were downloaded through O’Fallon’s Website—that’s tens of thousands of pages of documents that were not copied and distributed by city hall staff.
“People are really accessing and downloading this information,” Presley says. “When you consider these PDF documents are just a couple of kilobytes each in size, you realize that community acclimation to WebLink has really taken place.”
The site’s popularity has prompted O’Fallon to start planning to integrate the city’s GIS application with Laserfiche, opening public access to a vast store of government maps.
The public is clearly responding to the increased access to government records. City Hall staffers are getting emails from potential FOIA filers saying they found what they needed instead on WebLink, Presley says.
It’s not just O’Fallon residents and businesses benefitting. WebLink is also adding hours to every work day not devoted to pulling government files that can be found for free on WebLink, Presley says.
“With the volume of usage we’re seeing, WebLink has paid for itself tenfold in staff time savings,” he says. “Now staff can concentrate on their primary role of running the city instead of running around and pulling documents for FOIA requests. FOIA used to be a real unpleasant word around City Hall. Now the subject doesn’t even come up.”