Last week, Selectman Janet Askenburg spent a few minutes at the end of the Board of Selectmen meeting discussing with the board the possibility of putting the packets of information all of the Selectmen get onto the town website.
She used Westford’s website as one of the examples, so we took some time to talk with Westford IT Director Mike Wells and members of his staff on what it takes to put that information online.
Originally from England, Wells spent several years as IT Director in Gloucester, Massachusetts prior to coming to Westford in 2012.
With Selectmen’s minutes as far back as the 1890s online, Westford was honored in 2013 by the Massachusetts Municipal Association for best website in Massachusetts for a municipality between 15,000 and 49,999 people.
Q: What goes into putting packets online?
A: We use software called ImageView and then (Town Manager’s Secretary) Tina (Landry) tags them with a special tag to go with a particular meeting and date.
With that, you can pull out documents by either the group that was meeting or the date, whether they were correspondence originally or minutes or plans, and you can pull all of those documents using that key field.
From there, you can put all of those into a packet and put that into a .zip file and download the whole thing
Really, the only extra bit of work for Tina, since they have to all go online anyway, is making sure those documents are tagged.
Q: How long does tagging take?
A: It probably adds seconds. Probably more significant is getting all documents that should be there are there, that probably takes Tina twenty minutes.
She also loads the iPads for the meeting.
Q: How much of a transition where there from the old way of doing things?
A: That was a process. Part of that came from the need to get documents in a format that we can accept, particularly doing the closure of town hall (during renovation in 2010-11) and then it just took buy-in from the town manager and the Board of Selectmen to go to this format from their packets.
We didn’t go back and convert old packets, we just went forward.
It’s a changing of working habits, instead of just compiling copies of paper we now have to think about storing it online.
Q: How much did the iPads cost, and does that save any money in terms of saving paper?
A: The town bought five or six iPads, so maybe a couple of thousand dollars there, but the savings are hard to say. It depends on how many people wanted paper copies. In the long run it’ll save us money, but it’s mainly about convenience and efficiency and transparency: getting that out to the public and making sure no secret notes are being passed. Making sure everyone knows it is what it is.
Q: Does adding packets add anything to the IT Department’s work day?
A: No, we only step in when there is a technical problem. It’s all done by the Town Manager’s office. We already had a document management system that was going to be installed anyway, this is just a byproduct of that system being a repository of documents.
Q: If another town was thinking of doing this, what would you say to them?
A: I’d say it’s absolutely worth it. It’s a big part of being transparent for the residents, putting everything you can online where they can get at it easily. You need to make sure your Selectmen or Councillors are accepting of the technology, projects where you force the users to get something they really don’t want generally don’t go well.
But there’s no one size fits all, in Gloucester it was done very differently. There, Councillors were given iPads to use, but they also downloaded it themselves, so the actual method of delivery can vary enormously depending on how people want to deal with it, but I think it’s a very important way of getting information out to the public.
Packets for Selectmen’s meetings in Westford, as well as School Committee and Finance Committee meetings are available on the town website by going to the “Government” tab under “Projects and Documents” and then “Document Management System”