Portland Public Works enters the dot-com world

Peter DeWitt
Communications Coordinator
Department of Public Works
City of Portland, Maine

While the dot-com world has been in existence for nearly a decade, it has taken us municipalities a little extra time to jump on the bandwagon. Now that we have, however, it has opened up a whole new world to reach out to our customers. The Department of Public Works in the City of Portland, Maine, has been exploring the many facets of marketing themselves on the World Wide Web and, in the process, has reduced the amount of money expended on public outreach efforts on an annual basis.

Portland Public Works created its first website in November 1998, publishing two pages with information on the basic functions provided by the department and our customer service telephone number. On the average month, we received 35 hits.

Over the last few years we have evolved a great deal with over 15 pages now on the City's server. In addition to increasing the page volume, we have also created new tools that allow citizens to interact with us over the computer or obtain services they could not otherwise receive. For instance, in the winter of 1999, Portland Public Works created a subscriber list that allowed individuals to sign up for parking ban notification through e-mail or pager.

When the City of Portland is expecting significant snowfall, we declare a parking ban where vehicles must be off the 320 miles of City streets by 10 p.m. on a given evening. This can create quite an inconvenience for residents who do not have off-street parking. The quicker they can receive notice of a ban, the better prepared they are in terms of finding other parking alternatives.

By subscribing to the Department's electronic parking ban notification on our website, residents have been able to obtain immediate notification of an upcoming ban-even if they are out of town for the day. Response to this service has been overwhelming. The first year, we had over 500 people subscribe for e-mail/pager notification, received many inquiries from local television and radio stations and, most importantly, satisfied our customers with an innovative new service.

"The only thing worse than a parking ban is not finding your car because it has been towed," says John Marr, a resident of Portland. "The parking ban e-mail notice is my tow saver!" "I live in Portland but work in Portsmouth, New Hampshire," writes another resident. "Getting a page at my office with parking ban information gives me the time I need to prepare." Now in its third year, Portland Public Works has over 1,200 subscribers to their parking ban notification service.

While the winters can be long here in Portland, they soon give way to spring-and the beginning of construction season. For the last year, Portland Public Works has been using its website to notify residents and commuters of upcoming construction projects that will impact traffic.

One such significant project occurred last November when a portion of a busy road would be closed for three weeks worth of emergency sewer repairs. With over 28,000 commuters using this avenue each day, getting the word out and notifying them of the detour routes was of primary importance.

Our website was one of the key tools utilized for this effort. A detailed detour map was created along with daily construction updates that kept the public informed of our progress. In addition, new pictures of the project were placed on the site each week.

A current and easy-to-use website is only half the battle when attempting to bring significant traffic to your website. The other obstacle is using a domain name that is easy to remember. Like most municipalities, Portland Public Works uses the standard city, state, country format with our true address being www.ci.portland.me.us/publicworks-certainly not the easiest and most user-friendly address.

In an attempt to simplify our outreach efforts, we also obtained the domain name of portlandpublicworks.com for a small annual fee. This ghost site does nothing but point users to our traditional web address without having to remember the more complicated domain name.

Portlandpublicworks.com is now on all of our printed pieces. Our administrative staff can easily give the address out over the phone and, as a result, visitor traffic has increased by over 750 percent in the last six months. In August 2000, we had 669 hits to our site for the month. By March 2001, that number had increased dramatically to 4,403 for the month.

With our web address and identity firmly established, we are shifting more of our resources to the site. We now have videos that can be downloaded by the public giving them an in-depth look at some of our operations. Customers can submit work orders over the Internet and can e-mail staff directly with questions or concerns.

The future of the Portland Public Works website is filled with exciting new projects including the availability of GIS maps, how-to videos on how to safely shovel your driveway...and the list goes on.

While this is new technology that can also be fun to experiment with, our primary goal remains the same: providing the best and most timely customer service possible for the residents of Portland. "I'm not the most computer savvy person around," says Bill Bray, Director of Portland Public Works. "But I know what people want for information and have a great staff who can make this happen. We really are making it our goal to use new technology in ways that create easier access for our customers-and they appreciate it."

Peter DeWitt can be reached at 207-756-8173 or at Peterd@ci.portland.me.us.