Flagler Beach’s year-long attempt to launch an app that would improve engagement and communication with residents is flickering out. The City Commission Thursday evening voted unanimously to end development of the app and shift money allocated for it back to improving the city’s website. There was little indication that the city was interested in further app development, though that door remains ajar.
Testing of the app proved dissatisfying, especially because of the app’s own shortcomings and its numerous links back to the city’s website, itself considered clunky by city officials and residents. Users were left with an unwieldy loopback.
“I thought the app would be operating on its own platform and not a link back to our archaic website,” went one reaction by a beta tester, who appeared to be a commissioner. “As a commission we discussed how we need to update the site and it was disappointing
that our new technology links back to a site that needs updating. The app is just a land page app with click links to webpages. I don’ t think this site is enough for our residents. We needed a true new app or if the app must be linked to the website the website needs an overhaul first.”
Earlier this year then-City Manager William Whitson told the commission that the app would be launched at the end of January in test mode, with members of the commission, residents and staff members as guinea pigs. “We anticipate if everything goes well that we could go ahead and launch in mid-February,” he said. Neither the app nor Whitson got that far. Whitson was fired on Feb. 9. The app languished in until Interim City Manager Mike Abels on April 5 sent commissioners a memo recommending that the whole project be put off until the next manager is hired.
The app was to give residents access to information regarding utilities, events, parking areas in the city, local parks, hours of operation for city services and the like, and it was to give residents and businesses a way to file complaints and track how and whether the complaints were being addressed, somewhat the way Palm Coast’s Connect app works.
“There was a mixed feedback,” Katie Dockhorn, the assistant to the city manager, said, putting it kindly as she summarized the feedback for commissioners Thursday evening.
The city had budgeted $4,800 for the app’s development. The app was to be modeled after Flagler County’s version. Development cost $1,200 so far. The commission agreed to spend the remaining $3,600 to improve the existing website. If the new city manager decides to re-start the app process, republishing it alone will cost $1,350, according to Abels’s memo, plus $4,800 a year to host it (an unusually high fee), plus the costs of developing it further.
“The $ 950 to $1,350 cost to re-publish the App is because every year, Apple and Android have new phone releases and if the App is not active, the developer would need to rebuild it in order for it to be compliant with all of the newest changes,” the city manager said.
The city commission’s discussion Thursday evening illustrated, not for the first time, the commissioners’ frustrations with a website that does the job but lacks intuitiveness and style, and the budget of a small city. Mayor Suzie ohnston was looking to palm Coast as an example for improvements.
“They have the most user friendly website that I’ve come across,” she said, suggesting Flagler Beach could “reach out to who built theirs, as a suggestion. Everything is easy to find. Jobs are on the front page, contact information is there, they have hot links. You’re never in a searching mode on their platform.” Commissioner jane Mealy had a different experience when she was looking for budget figures, though the budget tab is as accessible as the one on Flagler Beach’s website: with two clicks.
But as the city clerk soon told the mayor, Flagler Beach simply cannot compete with the marketing budgets of a city like Palm Coast, which has a $672,000 budget for marketing and communications and handles its website design and maintenance inhouse.
“We don’t have that capability. You’re not willing to pay for it,” Penny Overstreet, the city clerk, told commissioners. “And I wouldn’t expect you to. It’s expensive. We don’t have the funds and resources and finances that they do, unfortunately.”
That leaves Flagler Beach in the lurch. “How the app really started becoming part of what we’re doing is there was a huge communication gap between the citizens and the City Hall,” Commissioner Eric Cooley said. “Remember this was boiling over. Folks felt like they were getting stonewalled, concerns weren’t getting tracked. And that’s how the app came in. So we made a commitment to the citizens to have a tool that was trackable to ensure that there was accountability, and if a concern was brought up, that it was not lost, is the best way to put it.” He said he had no problem with the app getting set aside, especially if it was a drain on staffers, as the city clerk said it was; she described it as a “nightmare.” But Cooley said the city still needs a way to answer residents’ concerns.
“If we delay the app, how can we continue forward and meet our commitments to the citizens and make sure that they get their concerns addressed without getting dropped? Can that be done?” Cooley asked.
Overstreet has been the de facto point person on web and app issues. She could not readily say yes: existing requirements are burdensome on residents, who have to put in too much information before an issue is assigned a number that can then be tracked. On top of that, residents, or users, have to sign in every time to use it. The whole process has to be simplified. Nevertheless, Flagler Beach’s website already has those tracking capabilities. They just take some effort. But that loops back to a website that needs to be streamlined and modernized, which requires money. The last website update was designed to make it more user-friendly for mobile phones. That was 2015, the equivalent of the 19th century in mobile technology.
City web designs are carried out by designers who specifically deal with government agencies, which are vastly different than the sort of products corporations want from their web and app presence.
“These are usually government based companies that do many different cities, counties, all over the country. So they’re all very similar. But if you’re not happy with the information I’ve gotten from Civic Plus,” Overstreet said of the current designer, “we can look at another option. Some of the options they’ve given me now are between $7,000 and $8,000, to $12,000 and $14,000. However, if you’re wanting to go with a whole other company, you don’t like what they’re doing, you’re looking at 40, $50,000.”
Overstreet sought to pre-empt the sort of cut-rate offers she’s heard before from people in the community or elsewhere. Those offers typically don’t meet a government website’s requirements. “So anybody who’s thinking they can help us that way, thank you but no thank you, before you even offer. It’s just not a small business. It’s not even a midsize business. It’s a government and it’s very different.” She was likely thinking of the city’s recent experience with an offer from a Realtor in January to pair many of the city’s website needs with a city-focused website he was designing. But the proposal seemed filled with potential pitfalls inherent in the mixing of private and public business. (See: “Flagler Beach Rejects Realtor’s Odd Bid to Run City Information Website Only He Would Own.”)
So it was back to focusing on the website with what little money was in hand at the moment. “Who do the app when we have a city website,” was the way Cooley summed it up. “I for one thing, a robust and more user friendly website is definitely a better way to go.”
“To me,” Commissioner Scott Spradley said, “the wish list is to get in a high, very much improved website that will answer so many questions. And I think part of the commentary and discussion about the app is, there’s kind of a false sense that somehow that will be better. But it’s only as good as the website is. So we’re talking about limited resources to fix the website.”
Spradley had given the existing website a 2 out of 10. The commission unanimously voted to delay further implementation of the app and use the remaining dollars in the budget to improve the website, but with no additional direction. Without additional money, especially the kind of money Overstreet talked about, the result is not likely to lift Spradley’s score much past a 3 or a 4.