Texas Rising - Winter 2012

Winter 2012

CIRA’s Joel Green, left, and Brittany Lane manage websites for more than 180 Texas county governments.

Partnering for Impact: Building County Websites on the Cheap

by Michael Castellon

Building a website and establishing online transparency tools can be a daunting task for many local governments, but thanks to one organization, the cost doesn’t have to be expensive.

Founded in 2001, the County Information Resources Agency (CIRA), a part of the Texas Association of Counties, assists local governments with technology adoption.

CIRA works with local governments to register a website address and build a basic website at no charge. Its free user tools include a content management system that allows even non-technical staff to add new information and update the site. Or for a $350 annual fee, CIRA will update the site for county officials.

Majority of Texas counties use CIRA

More than 180 counties use the service (and the team recently began adding municipalities — seven to date).

“A lot of the need for these tools is coming from county officials who are working toward transparency initiatives,” says Joel Green, operations manager at CIRA. “One driving force is the Comptroller’s Texas Transparency Leadership Circle. Many of the counties we serve look forward to putting that gold star on their website.”

The Leadership Circle recognizes local governments that meet a high standard for online financial transparency. The initiative recognizes governments that open their books to the public and provide clear spending information and user-friendly online tools.

In addition to service and recognition, a website can offset the need for routine administrative tasks such as answering telephones and distributing common forms.

“Being able to distribute forms online provides a significant relief to office staff,” Green says. “It allows them to spend more time focusing on more strategic job duties.”

CIRA can help during a crisis

Beyond day-to-day operations, CIRA’s services can provide counties with an effective vehicle for crisis communications, says Brittany Lane, who coordinates content and training at CIRA.

“During the drought, we were updating some counties’ information several times a day — usually information about burn bans and other important news,” she says. “Many counties were posting regularly during the wildfires this past summer. The Web becomes a tremendous resource following a disaster or crisis.”

In addition to ongoing support for clients, Lane conducts several free training classes each year in Austin.

“We have users who come in for content management system training, who have little to no experience with HTML or any website editing programs,” she says. “By the time they complete the training, they’re very competent in the CMS, and with routine posting. That speaks volumes for the CMS and how easy it is to use.” TR

Find out more about CIRA’s services at www.cira.state.tx.us.

Find out which counties have earned a place in the Texas Comptroller’s Leadership Circle and find links to more Texas local government websites at TexasTransparency.org.