When it comes to interacting with the public, the City of Kelowna, like most municipalities in Canada nowadays, views communication as a two-way street.
Gone are the days of limiting city news to newspaper advertisements and holding open houses as the only way to gather public feedback and input.
But with computers commonplace and the smartphone ubiquitous, online technology may not have replaced the face-to-face model of communicating between city staff and the public entirely, even though it has become a popular avenue of choice, in large part because of its easy access and 24-hour-per-day availability.
And more and more, the city is relying on its various web “portals” to hear back from the public on a variety of items, everything from development proposals to online program registrations, from requests for service to budget input and, of course, complaints to kudos.
“So many people are using mobile devices these days, it just makes sense,” said Tom Wilson, Kelowna’s corporate communications supervisor.
According to Statistics Canada, Kelowna had the highest rate of Internet use in the country among metropolitan areas at 93 per cent in 2012.
And across the country, more than half of all Internet users (58 per cent) accessed the Internet from a wireless handheld device such as a cell phone or tablet.
That figure was up from 33 per cent just two years earlier.
As a result, the city has seen tremendous growth in the use of technology when it comes to residents wanting information about Kelowna—especially through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Kelowna now has 12,000 Twitter followers, 4,300 Facebook likes and 25,000 e-subscribers on its automated email city news distribution mailing list.
He said if it was considered a facility, Kelowna’s main website (kelowna.ca) would be the most used with 5.4 million visits last year.
That popularity has prompted the city to budget $280,000 to have its entire web presence overhauled this year.
“We consider the web platform the online face of the City of Kelowna and has the potential to be a 24/7 service tool to residents,” said Wilson.
“Our vision is to move from an online brochure/archive to a service-oriented platform.”
The Kelowna website is currently a repository of more than 4,000 pages of information, but city officials concede it is not as user-friendly—especially for mobile users—as it could be.
So the overhaul will do more than just redesign the main website.
It will also redesign four other websites owned and operated by the city: The airport’s ylw.kelowna.ca, transit’s smartTRIPS.ca, the regional emergency plan’s cordemergency.ca and the Kelowna Community Theatre’s kelowna.ca/theatre) and then transfer over all the information currently stored on the existing sites.
“The platform currently is not mobile-friendly, nor is it accessible based on industry-standard accessibility guidelines,” said Wilson.
He added the existing platform has many online service delivery channels which will not be rebuilt in this process.
But they will need to be integrated and seamlessly incorporated into the new platform to maintain the same standards, he said.
Those include the city’s job posting system, recreation registration system, the service request system, property tax information, e-notifications and many more important services for residents.
For the city, Wilson said improving accessibility of its websites will further what it considers the ability to have direct conversations with the public in addition to the traditional media coverage of what the city is doing.
But Wilson, a former newspaper editor, said despite the growing popularity of Kelowna’s websites as a communication and information distribution tool, the improvements are not being seen at city hall as a way of cutting out the media “middle man.”
“We know (from the city’s annual resident survey) that the number one way people get their city news is from the newspapers,” he said.
So the connectivity City Hall is looking to improve is seen more as a compliment to the more traditional ways of getting its message out, and input back, than it is as a replacement, he explained.
“The bottom line is we need to be in every medium there is out there,” said Wilson.