Evanston city website wins transparency award

Jia You

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Evanston’s government website won the 2012 Sunny Award for transparency earlier this month, placing it among the top 5 percent of government websites nationwide.

The Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization devoted to government transparency, gives out the award annually to recognize government websites that have “gone above and beyond their call for transparency,” said Kristin McMurray, the group’s managing editor.

“We wanted to create kind of a golden standard of what information should be provided on government websites so that hopefully more people would reach to achieve it,” McMurray said.

The organization evaluated more than 5,000 county, city and school district websites on a 10-point system, looking for the budget, lobbying disclosures and audits, among other items.

A website with nine or 10 points would receive an A grade and the Sunny Award.

Only 214 websites received the award this year, McMurray said.

“It’s still a minority of websites that we look at (that meet transparency standards),” she said.

Evanston has received the award for two consecutive years, earning a full mark this year with its addition of complete contact information of administrative officials, including personal email, phone number and office address, McMurray said.

Erika Storlie, Evanston’s citizen engagement division manager, said the city aims to provide as much information to residents as possible.

“We take a lot of pride in our website,” Storlie said. “For us, the more we can put out there, the more residents can access any time of the day, the better served they are.”

In addition to the budget and meeting minutes, the website also hosts videos of city council and committee meetings posted from the Evanston YouTube channel.

It attracted more than 63,000 unique visitors for January, a 30 percent increase from the number of visitors during the same time period in 2010, said city spokesman Eric Palmer.

“People will visit a site that is very well-managed, user-friendly and attractive,” Palmer said.

Maintaining an accessible website is part of City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz’s larger strategy to improve government transparency and use of technology, Palmer said.

“This fits part and parcel into this whole concept of us trying to find different methods by which to communicate with the public, using the same methods that they’re comfortable using themselves,” Palmer said.

Apart from the website, the city will also offer text alerts for the coming street sweep, Palmer said. It is also continuing traditional communication methods such as public TV, radio and newsletters, he added.

“We want to be able to communicate with people on different platforms,” Palmer said.

Evanston resident Charlotte Sanders said the website is “very helpful” when she tries to locate different agencies or look for events in town.

“Any time I’ve gone on it, I’ve gotten exactly what I was looking for,” Sanders said.

Storlie said the goal this year is to make police services more available online, including building a website for recovered properties.

“It’s always a work in progress,” she said.