After years of work and $3M spent, Austin pulls plug on new website effort

Investigations
Investigative Summary:

Austin officials knew years ago the city’s website would need an overhaul. To meet that need, in 2017 the city’s Technology Department endeavored to build a new one. Now, more than three years later, a KXAN investigation discovered the project did not go as planned. After spending millions on the effort, city officials decided to pull the plug on the new website.

AUSTIN (KXAN) —  Sally Nagy was frustrated. Her sister was one of many Austin residents struggling on the city’s website to register for a COVID-19 vaccination. The immunization was critical because her sister provides 24-hour care for her husband.

Sally Nagy's sister struggled to get an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine on the city of Austin's website (KXAN Photo/Kevin Clark)
Sally Nagy’s sister struggled to get an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine on the city of Austin’s website (KXAN Photo/Kevin Clark)

“If you can’t even get on the website and make an appointment, that tells me that something is wrong with the system,” she vented.

In a memo sent Wednesday to City Council members, the city’s public information office said, “the portal platform used for Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 vaccine and testing registration system is entirely separate to the City’s main website, austintexas.gov, and is managed by an external vendor.”

While problems on the City of Austin’s vaccine registration webpage may be new, city officials have acknowledged the need for a better website for years. To that end, Austin’s technology leaders made it a goal in 2017 to build an improved and more user-friendly site. The revamped website would bring more services online, from looking up building permits to food assistance. It would be available in more languages and more accessible to people with vision, motor and cognitive disabilities, according to internal project records obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act.

The city set ambitious goals: 600 of the highest-priority city services would be available online by September 2021, according to one internal project “roadmap” from the Communications and Technology Management Department.

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The idea was that Technology Department content teams would transition city services to a new website, according to an early project brief. Technology Department employees would build out features that support forms, account management, payments and reservations. They would also train workers in other city departments to write user-friendly content, and residents would test new features.

The new website would be built separate from the current one at austintexas.gov, and the city planned to replace its current website with the new one, according to internal documents.

“An alpha release of the new site can be found at Alpha.austin.gov,” according to one document, referring to a website that can still be accessed as of this report. “This site will stand in parallel to the current Austintexas.gov until essential services and content have been transitioned, at which point Austintexas.gov will be retired.”

austintexas.govalpha.austin.gov
Austin’s current website (left) and the new website (right)

But, that never happened. The city has not reached many of its original goals for the new website, and only a fraction of the city’s services and features have been transitioned. Now, with a tab exceeding $3 million on a project that was not specifically approved by City Council, the city plans to decommission the second website.

A public information specialist with the Technology Department said the $3 million was for more than just building a website and included funding “research, innovation, testing, and community engagement to inform how we design our digital services.”

“These learnings will be carried over into the future developments on austintexas.gov. After reviewing the state of the project in 2020, it was determined that current approach was not financially sustainable and a decision was made to begin a transition of features and content to austintexas.gov and to focus all resources on the single site moving forward,” the spokesperson said in an email.

‘Work in progress’

“In multiple places throughout the site, the header, the footer, as you navigate through the site, this is a work in progress,” said Travis McAshan as he clicked through the city’s unfinished second site. McAshan is an Austin native and web developer for nearly 20 years. We reached out to him to better understand why the city has two websites.

Several years after the city decided to begin developing alpha.austin.gov, it is clearly still a site under construction. It even directs users back to the city’s current site, austintexas.gov.

Austin’s alpha website, which will be decommissioned, remains a work in progress. The city initially intended to make it Austin’s primary website for city services but changed course after several years of investment.

When we first asked the city’s Technology Department about the alpha site, a spokesperson told us it was “iteratively developed and designed to test service oriented features,” so Technology Department employees could see what was and wasn’t working.

“This test environment is known as a ‘sandbox’ and allows for innovation and testing that isn’t timebound,” a spokesperson with Technology Department told us in an email.

Web developer Travis McAshan says alpha.austin.gov is not a "built-out" site and was surprised to see it alive with only a few features (KXAN Photo/Kevin Clark)
Web developer Travis McAshan says alpha.austin.gov is not a “built-out” site and was surprised to see it alive with only a few features (KXAN Photo/Kevin Clark).

McAshan says sandboxing is a web development term that refers to a way of testing new features without breaking a site that’s already live and accessible to the public.

But he says he was surprised to see alpha.austin.gov was live with only a few features.

“Generally speaking, you create a sandbox to test features outside of the purview of public visitors,” he said. “When they said ‘Hey, we’re using this as a test site,’ that doesn’t really jive with the [documents] there.”

The price tag

KXAN dug through hundreds of pages of internal project records obtained from the Technology Department. They show the budget to build the new website grew to more than $3 million.

A budget proposal for 2019 requested $350,000 for the new site. Of that, $50,000 would cover web hosting, software and equipment; and $300,000 would pay temporary staff for “content strategy & copywriting, engineering, quality assurance, and release management, operations, and translation services.”

“Since the launch of Austin’s Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows program in 2016, Austin has become a world leader in hiring design & technology specialists into government and establishing practices for user-centered design and open-source development at the municipal level,” the document said. “This proposal provides resources to continue to lead in this space, collaborate with other leading governments, and develop the future structure for design and technology at the City of Austin.”

By September 2020, budget documents show the city had spent close to $3.2 million on the new website. That mostly included salaries for temporary employees that totaled more than $1 million in both 2019 and 2020.

Temporary staff may work across a portfolio of ongoing projects, the city told us. The number of Technology Department temporary employees working on the website project ranged from 10 to 19 people, but those people only reported 61.5% of their hours were spent working on it, a spokesperson said.

To get more context about the cost of such a project, we reached out Denver-based EvoGov, Inc., which builds municipal government websites. The company has about 400 customers, according to its President, John McKown.

McKown noted that EvoGov is currently one of the finalists to redesign a website for a municipality of about 1 million residents. The total cost? Under $100,000. He says the most his company has charged to redesign a website was about $200,000, and that was for a county with a population larger than Austin’s.

“The scope of the project is so key to all of this,” he said, referring to Austin’s efforts. “Is the scope super ambitious? Was the scope not defined enough, and it just kept expanding?”

“You’re talking close to 20 people that are all making a high hourly rate, and what I see missing is the list of applications, the goals, the timeline, the scope,” he added.

McKown said the difference between the city’s efforts and those of his company may be all the testing and iterations involved.

“We don’t necessarily need to go and have a room full of people click on things and see which ones are going to work better because we already know,” McKown said.

He said cities with more than 300,000 people tend to have in-house development teams.

For example, the city of Houston told us its latest web redesign in 2018 was done that way, and it would have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars to go with an outside contractor instead.

City responds: ‘The most important part of alpha was the process

Despite Austin’s web redesign project ballooning to more than $3 million in about three years, it was never initially brought to Austin City Council for approval. The Technology Department says it never envisioned the project as a “single standalone program.”

“The requested funding was included in the annual budgeting process and was approved by Council when the overall budget was approved,” said a department spokesperson. “Most of the budget has been allocated to hiring temporary City of Austin staff. Council does not approve staffing funds beyond its approval of the annual budget.” 

While the Technology Department did respond to our questions by email, the department declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview about the goals, challenges and accomplishments of the alpha website, which will not be live for long.

In October, about a week after KXAN started asking questions about it, the Technology Department and Corporate Public Information Office sent a memo to City Council members saying it would consolidate the project with the main site.

In an October email to KXAN, a Technology Department spokesperson said budget limitations played a role in the decision to focus work back on the city’s main website.

“Recently, due to financial constraints, a decision was made to unify our development efforts and combine the work that’s been done to this point,” a Technology Department spokesperson wrote in an email to KXAN. “Staff are currently working on how best to apply the lessons and technology that was developed over the last few years into a single effort.”

“The most important part of alpha was the process, which allowed for innovation, testing, and community engagement to measure user experience and identify website improvements,” the spokesperson added.

Since the Technology Department said testing was a main component of this project, KXAN asked for records showing how much testing was done over a three-year period.

The Technology Department said it is “difficult” to identify the exact number of residents and city staff involved in user testing, but that testing happened at “multiple decision points in the design and development process,” with each session including five to 10 people.

No Austin City Council member accepted our request for an interview when we asked if they were aware of the project. The offices of two council members, Leslie Pool and Mackenzie Kelly, said they were looking into it.

Pandemic heightens need for a digital city hall

McKown says this has been his busiest year yet. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted a need for more digital services, as government offices around the country closed. The trend now is more content, better usability and more digital services.

The pandemic has highlighted a need for municipal governments to bring more services online (KXAN Photo)
EvoGov President John McKown says the pandemic highlighted a need for municipal governments to bring more services online (KXAN Photo)

“Touchless digital services are the future, and a lot of websites weren’t equipped to handle it,” he said.

Before COVID-19, he explained that it was less important to show public safety, information and news as the primary aspect of a city or county website. In the past, it would have typically just been videos and slideshows.

“When COVID started to happen, city halls were closing across the country,” McKown said. “Getting emergency notifications up, and timely posts showing how to get services in a new touchless digital way, was something we hadn’t had to wrestle with before.”

Austin officials acknowledged this need in many of the project documents KXAN obtained.

“Let’s imagine a low-income parent who needs to get to City Hall to fill out a form for a [program],” said one Technology Department document from August 2020. “They live far from downtown and use public transit to get around. In this instance it might take them 1.5 hours to get to City Hall. This seemingly simple task may take up to half a day, and most residents don’t have that luxury.”

As far as digital services added online, the city of Austin is not meeting its goals set back in 2017.

While the city says multiple teams have been working on digitizing city services, a Technology Department spokesperson tells us it is tracking approximately 66 digital services projects that the alpha team completed and published. An additional 30 or so are in progress.

Alpha site set for shutdown

As for the future of alpha.austin.gov, the city says it will be decommissioned as soon as the content on it is transitioned over to the city’s main site.

“There are currently only two City departments, Municipal Court and the Office of the Police Oversight along with a few services, migrated to alpha,” said a Technology Department spokesperson. “The digital services team is working to move the related content and features to austintexas.gov. The migration timeline for this work has not yet been determined.”

Residents can still file a complaint about an APD officer with the city’s Office of Police Oversight, which is on the alpha.austin.gov platform.

Internal emails from October show the department was still working to determine more about the future of these two departments online, as well as the general city website.

“By the next Sprint Review, we hope to have a clearer picture of what the road forward looks like for the City’s website,” said a Technology Department project manager at the time. “And we look forward to sharing that vision with all of you.”

Nagy reiterated that with more people depending on digital services, there’s more at stake than ever before.

“State and local government need to utilize people who know what they’re doing,” she said. “They need quality assurance.”

The city’s internal memo sent Wednesday provides an overview of the web redesign project, including its purpose, scope and a timeline of events leading to the alpha website’s decommissioning. You can read the full memo, which KXAN obtained from a City Council member’s office, here.

Photographer Richie Bowes, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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