It will come as no surprise to anyone who has logged on to halifax.ca: the city’s auditor general has confirmed that the redesigned website was riddled with errors when it went live in 2017.
But in a report published Tuesday and presented to council’s audit and finance standing committee, auditor general Evangeline Colman-Sadd wrote that management knew there were errors, but didn’t think they were a big deal.
“HRM’s new website went live in June 2017 with outstanding issues which management did not consider significant enough to delay the site’s launch,” Colman-Sadd wrote in the report.
“However, these issues impacted functionality and user experience. Paying a parking ticket did not work as expected and many pages had links which did not work.”
As Tim Bousquet has written, the website “sucks:”
There’s no other word for it. The transition from old site to new site was poorly planned, and users lost bookmarked pages, so every news article that ever linked to a city webpage immediately became obsolete — that must be thousands of news articles, immediately made useless. A “legacy” site was created to host older material, but it is clunky and impossible to navigate. When the new site went live, there were hundreds of broken links, failed payment pages, and other problems. A lot of the redesign makes no sense whatsoever: what used to be a simple listing of public meetings now requires multiple click-throughs and some guessing as one tries to figure out the logic of the search, for example. To get to bus schedules you first must navigate through a confusing landing page, and even then schedules are an unreadable mess. And to this day, the site often fails to load on some browsers (Safari, in particular, but sometimes Firefox as well) and the search function is unusable.
Colman-Sadd’s office found that the project was well-managed up until the final stages, with a steering committee regularly monitoring the progress. Before going live, though, the unnamed “project sponsor” didn’t check in with the committee and senior managers from two unspecified municipal departments didn’t have an opportunity to approve their sections of the website.
There was testing done before the website went live, identifying issues, but the project sponsor told the auditor general’s office that “the outstanding issues were not considered critical to delay the website launch.
“HRM also wanted feedback from external website users rather than internal users only. While this is a reasonable approach at some point in new website development, the HRM site had issues which impacted functionality. We expected many of these to be resolved before going live.”
The most serious errors at the time of the website’s launch affected the city’s online parking ticket payment service.
“Errors identified during ticket payment testing were not fixed before the website went live. These included credit card processing errors which prevented payments from going through,” Colman-Sadd wrote in the report.
The municipality plans to replace that system this year, and Colman-Sadd’s only public recommendation attached to the report is that Halifax “should design and execute adequate testing plans for its new parking ticket payment system.” Management accepted that recommendation.
There were no recommendations around broken links — which, as Colman-Sadd acknowledged to reporters after the meeting, are still an issue — because the city recently started using a program to proactively check for broken links.
“You’re going to get those. There’s no way you would ever have a website that didn’t have broken links on it as time goes on and things move and change,” Colman-Sadd said. “You just need a way to identify them and fix them.”
There was also a section of the report presented to the committee in camera.
“The only thing I can say about the in camera is that it’s not a matter where there’s a fraud,” Colman-Sadd told reporters. “Other than that, it’s just an area where I felt it’s important to only report in camera, not report publicly.”
Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé rushed past reporters and into his office after the meeting, refusing to take questions. Chief financial officer Jane Fraser told the Examiner the report fell under “protection of municipal assets,” citing s. 19(2)(a) of the Halifax charter, which allows for closed sessions to speak to matters of “acquisition, sale, lease and security of municipal property.”
Fraser wouldn’t say whether there were recommendations attached to the in camera portion of the report.
“I can’t speak to what goes on in camera,” she said.
Coun. Matt Whitman told the Examiner that the in camera session was related to “supposedly seamlessly transitioning” to a new vendor.
“Lots of money being thrown at this,” he said. “Maybe not good money after bad money.”
The company that built the new halifax.ca, Vancouver-based FCV Technologies Ltd., went bankrupt last year. Fraser said the municipality didn’t lose any money due to the company’s bankruptcy, but Colman-Sadd said it did reduce payments to the company.
“There were some reduced payments, however there were also parts of the project that haven’t been completed yet,” Colman-Sadd told reporters.
The reduced payments meant that Halifax only spent $1.9 million of the $2.5 million budgeted for the project. A request for proposals for a new company to handle website services closed in October, and Colman-Sadd said the city was already planning to go back out to tender when the original vendor went out of business.
The website has many more problems than broken links and a failed payment system. The search function is horrible. And the menu organization is crappy, requiring way too many clicks to get to simple things like meeting minutes.
So the auditor is likely right, that it’s nearly impossible create a site with no broken links, but this site redesign specifically rendered every existing link to a city document broken. That is totally unnecessary and not at all to be expected of any web developer anywhere. Maybe the city should just be hiring its own team to do this?
It is possible. Automated tools that manage this are common.
There was a mix of technical and planning reasons why this was botched.
I agree that internal staffing resources would have been the better choice then the outside resource that was responsible for this, but the city downsized the employees and group responsible for the internal sites, before deploying the new site.