Monday, September 01, 2008

What Do City Websites and City Volunteer Programs Have in Common?

Ten years ago I was involved with a project to create a unified web presence for the City of Burlington. In the two years prior, various departments had proactively taken on the initiative to launch a departmental website themselves. Some departments had contracted professional firms, some were done by department staff who like to tinker with computers and some had a friend/nephew/sister who was just getting into the business and offered their service for free for exposure. Needless to say, with such a diverse group of suppliers and each with their own approach, the websites were completely different from each other. They were different in look, strategic objectives, navigation, content policy, etc. Site visitors from one department’s website needed to completely reacclimatize themselves when they went to a different department’s website. Things have changed a great deal since then, at least in terms of websites. Almost all city websites today have a uniform approach to the use of the internet. There is a common theme that permeates through the website but each department has their own content space and unique components to make the site beneficial for the staff and citizen clients of that department. Ten years ago, the shift from complete departmental autonomy into a partially centralized website was challenged by a perceived need that without complete autonomy, a department’s needs in a website would not be met. “Our department is different.” Today the benefits of a shared infrastructure, greater technical flexibility and higher standards of acceptability have eased the concerns of almost everyone. I doubt any city today would launch a new website strategy that abandoned the notion of centralization completely. So what does all of this have to do with city volunteer programs? I cannot help but to see the parallel courses of city websites and city volunteer programs. Volunteer programs are currently run in most cities without cross departmental planning and/or without any cross departmental infrastructure. There are, however, leading municipalities that have begun to raise the bar. A staff person who is responsible for volunteer management across the entire municipality can provide tremendous support to those who coordinate volunteer efforts in their own department. This is especially the case where some departments do not have someone managing volunteers in a full time capacity. The nature and scope of this support will depend on local factors but could include any of the following:
  • Creation of standards for volunteer applications
  • Creation of city-wide policies related to the management of volunteers from recruitment through recognition
  • Better use of data through the standardization of data collection
  • Greater knowledge among the existing and potential volunteers related to the volunteer opportunities within the city.
  • Better alignment between volunteers and the positions they fill
  • Sharing of best practices in volunteer management and coaching departmental volunteer coordinators who only work with volunteers a small portion of the time or are volunteers for the city themselves
  • Sharing of infrastructure to provide a higher level of service at a lower cost
As others see how this approach can minimize liabilities, maximize the impact of volunteers and make the volunteer experience a consistently good one, more and more municipalities are certain to get on board. A few departments will still likely cling to the adage of “but our department is different”, but the overall the benefits are too large to ignore. It’s a decade behind city websites, but thankfully, city volunteerism is making the same strides forward.