As the western third of Casper Mountain burned in August 2006, Natrona County posted information on its website that may have been obsolete by the time county residents read it.
“We had a guy who could get in and design something and post something, and that took time,” said Eileen Hill, director of Natrona County’s Information Technology Department.
Five years later, the county now faces a threat from flooding.
But now it has a new and award-winning website from the Manhattan, Kan.-based Civic Plus to notify county residents of hazards as fast as officials can type, Hill said.
“With this system, we have a user-friendly interface,” she said. “It can be as soon as someone can get an Internet connection, log on, draft and build their message, and publish it.”
Lt. Stew Anderson, the county’s emergency management director, can post flooding alerts, locations of sandbags, calls for volunteers through the website on his own without needing to go through the Information Technology department.
As the IT department developed the new website, Anderson suggested the “Notify Me” program for people who want the county to send text messages or emails about public safety alerts. “That’s a very big item.”
In late 2008, Hill responded to an ad from the Manhatten, Kan.-based Civic Plus, which specializes in designing websites for municipalities and counties.
“All along I knew we needed something,” Hill said. “It had value; it provided flexibility.”
In early 2009, Hill began negotiating with Civic Plus, conferring with her staff about what the company could offer, taking pictures of county scenes, and talking to Civic Plus for hours about Natrona County’s identity, she said. “They cared enough to know about who we were.”
The IT Department switched to the new system on May 14, 2010, Hill said.
The county spent $27,000 for Civic Plus to set up the website, and pays it another $5,300 a year for updates and new products, she said.
But it recoups that by allowing the IT department’s programmer to work on other tasks, and saves by eliminating the need for county officials to update the site without the programmer acting as a gatekeeper, Hill said. “Not having to staff somebody [for the website] gives us a lot of freedom.”
The county saw the first major test of the new website during the 2010 primary election, she said. “It worked fabulously.”
IT department project manager Andrew Burns worked with County Clerk Renea Vitto to count the ballots and tell the public almost immediately, Hill said. “Andrew was able to post [results] within minutes.”
In developing a county website, Civic Plus CEO Ward Morgan said his company works with county officials how to better respond to their bosses, the people. “We train them how to put information up there, how to think from a citizen’s viewpoint.”
Those citizens bank online, and dealing with the government is no different, he said. “Citizens are expecting to have services online.”
Local governments, like Natrona County until a year ago, have developed and operated their own websites, or contracted through local firms, he said.
But either homegrown or locally hired web designs can run into the same problems as when a need arises for a street sweeper, Morgan said. A local government could ask a local shop to make one, or it could go to a street sweeper manufacturer, he said.
“It comes down to a specific expertise in local government,” Morgan said.
The political climate, too, is driving the needs for a company such as Civic Plus, he said.
People want less government and lower taxes, but they still want public services, Morgan said. “As strange as it seems, [the political climate] has forced sales.”
Corey Hampton, Civic Plus’ vice president for marketing, added people distrust federal and state government, but trust local government.
Of the approximately 30,000 counties and municipalities in the United States, Civic Plus designs websites for about 800 of them, said Deb McNew, vice president for operations. “There’s still a lot of opportunity out there.”
That opportunity has come into sharp and painful focus in the past few months as flooding and tornadoes have devastated the Midwest and South, Morgan said.
Because Civic Plus runs the local websites from servers in Kansas, the destruction of a local government’s infrastructure including IT departments will not affect a city’s or county’s ability to communicate with its citizens, he said. “Our website is up and running because it isn’t hosted there.”
Emergency management and law enforcement can still notify people about traffic, power outages, evacuations and other disaster-related results, Morgan said.
And citizens still have a way to contact their governments to learn about the fates of missing relatives, he said.
In Natrona County, Hill said the threat of possible record flooding along the North Platte River in the next few weeks could mark the next major test of the Civic Plus system.
“We’ve trained Emergency Management to do their own updates,” she said. “I’m giving them tools.”