News / Halifax

'Sorry, we can't find the page' is unfair in a modern democracy: Tristan Cleveland

Metro's columnist says our city's democracy is broken when the HRM website doesn't work.

Ever come across this page on the Halifax.ca site? You are not alone.

Zane Woodford / Metro Order this photo

Ever come across this page on the Halifax.ca site? You are not alone.

A government website is like a utility, and for weeks, Halifax’s information pipes were broken.

It’s a reminder how important a website is to modern democracy and how much better it could be.

Almost all Google results for Halifax.ca were dead for over a month and many still are. If that sounds innocuous, consider that about 7,000 residents visit the website per day to pay fines, apply for permits, sort garbage, and understand decisions that could transform their communities.

People need information from their government like they need electricity and water, and our information pipes went bust.

It happened because the web design company, FCV, were shrinking 60,000 pages to 5,000, which made it hard to match all old links to new pages.

The nearly $2 million FCV was paid, however, is more than enough to ensure links still got people to things they need. An electricity utility can’t just cut power for weeks because of a sloppy transition, and neither can a government website just cut off information.

Weeks of having basic research obstructed brought home just how important a website is for democracy. And I don’t mean for online surveys.

In the years I have been an advocate, I’ve learned that the people who have influence are the ones who know what is going on. When I help community groups trying to fix anything from a dangerous street to protecting a lake, the biggest thing I provide is information. To make change, they need to know who to talk to about what issues, when, with what arguments, based on what reports.

To support more people get actively involved in making this a better city, we don’t need better online engagement tools. Real democratic participation means making sure people can find out what the heck is going on.

For this, the website is our basic infrastructure. It falls short.

We spend millions yearly on Halifax staff writing reports on every issue in the city. And yet, absolutely no work goes into organizing them by subject or tagging them so search engines can find the right stuff.

If Google doesn’t take you to the report you want, you somehow have to to locate the agenda for the exact day it went to Halifax regional council. Good luck.

And it’s currently not possible to look at, say, all the reports written on parking. We spend money creating vital information, and then we throw it in a black hole.

Taking action also depends on knowing when and how decisions will be made on the issue, and for that, it’s critical to know what plan or project it falls under. All plans, whether they have already passed or are underway, should be listed in one place so citizens can see how it all fits together and what their issue falls under.

Right now, the Centre Plan doesn’t appear to be on the website.

The regional, economic, and transit plans are randomly scattered about.

Without a page expressing clearly the processes that will decide our future, it can take someone months of being involved to figure it all out.

That’s not right. The average citizen should be able to grasp how we intend to move forward.

These are just two ideas among many, and it’s worth noting the Clerk’s Office is actively trying to make things better.

But to get the website right, we need to recognize its role as a public utility for information, and via information, empowerment.

The site should make the levers of change feel accessible, because the more people get involved in making Halifax a better city, the better a city we will have.

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