AuthorUrs, Nicolae
  1. Introduction

    People are increasingly accustomed to living their lives online. Private companies are offering us a plethora of platforms and websites that move in the cloud things that our parents used to do in face-to-face settings: buying groceries, getting a loan, booking a hotel room, calling a cab, talking with our aunt. To do this, websites, apps, and platforms are continuously improved, aiming constantly at reducing 'friction' (the effort necessary for achieving our goal there). As such, the digital offerings of private companies are improving all the time and have become so intuitive that our children do not need a lot of training (if any at all) to be able to use them.

    The public sector, after few years' lag, is also beginning to improve its digital offerings. In Romania, all towns and cities have a working website and the level of sophistication in the services they offer (both informational and transactional) is constantly increasing. The official website is the main channel through which city halls offer digital public services to citizens and companies. As such, the quality of these websites and the tools offered for citizens with disabilities should be regularly assessed and improved.

    Evidence gathered in the last two decades increasingly support the assertion that usability and accessibility influence the adoption of online services. Several researchers (Fogg et al., 2001; Flavian, Guinaliu and Gurrea, 2006; Robins and Holmes, 2008) found out that trust in the information or services offered by website increases with the quality and usability of the site and that, despite improvements, governmental websites still have problems with usability (Abu Doush and AlMeraj, 2019). At the same time, official websites all around the world (Youngblood and Mackiewicz, 2012; Kopackova, Michalek and Cejna, 2010; Kuzma, 2010; Islam, Rahman and Islam, 2017; Nnko, 2017) have accessibility problems that influence their ability to serve people with disabilities.

    After the COVID-19 pandemic struck, in the first months of 2020, these long-time trends have accelerated. Governments proved they could be agile (providing quick decisions, testing new solutions, keeping those that work and abandoning those that do not) and adaptive (dealing with wicked problems, that have many stakeholders and do not have a clear solution). Although both concepts deal with the response of the government to a sudden change in the environment (such as a medical crisis), there is an inherent tension between the two. Agile is prescriptive, and provides methods, adaptive is descriptive, and can influence the environment, not only adapt to it (Janssen and van der Voort, 2020). Lockdowns and restrictions, which varied in intensity and length, were put in place at one time or another in all countries in Europe (with the notable exception of Belarus). These restrictions, which an increasing number of studies seem to show that work (Caulkins et al., 2021) are imposed and lifted based on the epidemiological situation in each country. The European countries are, at the moment of writing this article (October 2021), going through the fourth or fifth wave of infections, and life has not yet returned to the pre-pandemic normalcy (Economist, 2021).

    The digital transformation of work styles is gathering pace, spearheaded by private companies and the digital tools used for interacting with customers are increasingly important. The number of companies that use digital technologies is increasing (European Commission, 2021). These developments are also influencing public entities, not only in the way in which public servants work, but in the way in which participatory mechanisms are transformed (Kodama, 2020). For these potential improvements to come to fruition, digital technologies should become more central to the way in which public institutions deliver their services. The new coronavirus pandemic also showed that digital tools could be a powerful tool for delivering public services in situations that preclude face-to-face interactions (Agostino, Arnaboldi and Lerna, 2021) and can be quickly adopted by citizens and companies. Research show that around half of companies have prepared a business continuity plan that, in essence, plots a way for organizations to react in the event of a crisis (Mercer Global, 2020). How widespread are such continuity plans inside governmental organizations is fuzzier, but, in Romania at least, such plans, when present, exist generally only on paper, are not feasible and were not implemented during the COVID-19 crisis. Both academic research (Gabryelczyk, 2020) and anecdotal information point to this being the case in other countries as well. A lot of ad-hoc solutions were implemented, many of them 'good-enough', as opposed to the higher standards requested by public institutions in normal times. Some of these shoe-string solutions have proven very useful and are constantly updated and upgraded, with good chances they will be kept even after the pandemic crises subsides.

    Public institutions had to quickly adapt to this situation. In Romania, for example, events unfolded very rapidly in the spring of 2020. It took less than a month from the first recorded case until a national lockdown was introduced in March 2020, which meant that institutions did not have a lot of time to prepare for delivering public services without face-to-face interaction.

    The current epidemic has transformed the way in which citizens look at the digitalization of public services. Forced to interact online with the public sector, they understand better what digital transformation means for public institutions, and the pressure on the governments to increase the number and quality of their digital offerings increased (Nachit and Belhcen, 2020).

    Public servants were also affected by the new epidemic, and a lot of them were, during lockdowns, forced to work from home. The availability and quality of digital tools through which they could do their work (from teleconferencing systems, stable internet connections, and digital platforms to access their files, to available laptops and functioning websites) was essential (Kodama, 2020). Opinions on the effects of COVID-19 on the transformation of public service delivery vary from highly optimistic (Janssen and van der Voort, 2020) to less starry-eyed (Gabryelczyk, 2020).

    The website of the institution is the go-to place where citizens look for online services. It is the main avenue through which both transactions (services that require exchanging of documents or payments) and information is offered. As such, these official websites should be of high quality; not only the services citizens can access on these webpages should be well designed, but the sites themselves should follow the latest developments in the fields of UX (user experience) and UI (user interface).

    With this research, we wanted to find out how good are the city hall websites of the largest Romanian municipalities. In Romania, city halls offer most public services for the citizens. The road to digitalizing these services was long, complicated and the results underwhelming and uneven (Urs, 2020). The COVID-19 crisis quickened the pace of moving the interactions between citizens and institutions online. Many barriers that existed before the pandemic--an outdated legal framework, insufficient resources allocated inside institutions, resistance to change from public servants--seem to be more easily overcome in the middle of a global medical crisis.

    The paper starts with a literature review of the current research in the field of usability and accessibility of the official public sector websites. We then assess the situation in Romania's cities from this point of view, and we evaluate 103 websites of the biggest Romanian urban municipalities. We then draw some lessons and offer advice on ways to improve the city hall websites.

  2. Literature review

    Research on evaluating the quality and usability of a website has a long history (on World Wide Web scale) and the scientific consensus is that a good website has a measurable impact on the success of information and service delivery (Nielsen, 1999; Flavian, Guinaliu and Gurrea, 2006; Belanche, Casalo and Guinaliua, 2012; Alshira'h, 2020). There is a growing body of research that assesses governmental websites and suggests improvements (Eschenfelder et al., 1997; Wang, Bretschneider and Gant, 2005; Baker, 2009; Huang and Brooks, 2011; Youngblood and Mackiewicz, 2012; Tekemen and Tanriover, 2017). This trend is also intertwined with a drive for more transparency from public institutions. This development, even if results are uneven among cities (Canizares-Espada et al., 2021), is to be welcomed, but the growing quantity of information available makes the task of web designers working for the public sector even more difficult (Alcaraz-Quiles et al., 2018). For this, new design paradigms are employed, some of them borrowed from commercial web 2.0 platforms (Zappen, Harrison and Watson, 2008).

    For widespread adoption of digital tools in the interactions between public institutions and citizens, their existence is not enough. It is essential that both citizens and public servants embrace these solutions as the default mode of interaction (Cegarra-Navarro...

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