When I heard earlier this week that the New York State Senate had launched a new Web site, I was skeptical that it would really matter much.
Given the dysfunction and high level of partisanship in Albany, my expectations where that new site would serve as nothing more than a promotional brochure for the new Democratic majority.
But, taking a page from the quality and openness that the Obama Administration brought to WhiteHouse.gov, the new Senate site is truly a Web platform that is open and hits the target of serving the public good. The site is not perfect -- for example, users can't comment on news or blog items -- but it is impressive.
First, there's no attempt -- yet, at least, -- to use the site to favor Democratic legislators. Every Senator who has content to display, whether a press release, blog post or video, is treated equally (based on timestamp).
And every Senator has a full range of tools to communicate with the public.
Let's tour, by way of example, our senator's home page, Mike Ranzenhofer.
From this page, you can not only get his latest press releases, but an aggregation of YouTube videos related to Ranzenhofer's senate service. These aren't just videos produced by Senate staff, but include, for example, a video produced by The Batavian.
Ranzenhofer also has a blog, but he has yet to post any items.
From this page, you can also sign up for e-mail and/or mobile alerts from Ranzenhofer's office. The sign-up process also allows you to select notifications from each of the Senate committees, so if there is a specific topic of interest, you can follow that issue in the Senate.
Much of the rest of Ranzenhofer's page is standard fair that you find on any legislative Web site, such as a district map, contact info, legislation and a biography.
When Ranzenhofer's office posts news, blog items or video, it could appear on the home page and it get aggregated into general parts of the site along with all the other Senate content. For example, Ranzenhofer's videos are right on the main video home page (at least at the time of this writing).
For the most part, the Senate is using YouTube for video, which is smart not only from a superior distribution standpoint, but the free hosting (which from commercial providers is VERY expensive) saves taxpayers money.
I looked through a few of the Senate blog posts. It's clear, even if some of these guys are writing their own posts, they still don't quite get the whole blogging thing. The writing is often stiff, there are no links out to items of interest or other bloggers, and the posts often lack any real substance, but presumably just in giving these guys the tools, over time more and more of them will get it and the blog as a communication tool for senators will become something that is useful.
But just about every page has RSS feeds attached, for easier updates for users with RSS readers.
And, like I mentioned above, the site still isn't really a two-way communication tool. Users can't comment on items or make any other public communication that would allow citizens to engage in a two-way conversation with their representatives.
Still, the Senate Democrats are to be applauded for creating a site that brings a great deal of more information about the Senate -- from both sides of the aisle -- to citizens in an easy-to-use and follow format. (One usability quibble: It's really not a good idea to serve an irritating little alert box every time a user clicks a link that will take him off the site.)
Speaking of senators and the Internet, here's Ranzenhofer's Facebook profile.