Michigan’s Education Transparency Bill is a Good Idea – Poorly Executed
Here in Michigan, a provision was added to the Education Omnibus Budget Bill this year that concerns me as a website administrator for an educational organization. It’s poorly crafted by legislators who are clearly (but not unsurprisingly) ignorant about technology.
The specific portion of the bill is Sec. 209 in P.A. 201 of 2012. The full text of the public act is below, but it basically says that all educational institutions in the state (including K-12 and colleges/universities) now have to put a large, dog-ugly logo on the front pages of their websites linking to details about their budgets in the name of transparency.
I love transparency – I think we definitely need more of it. However, the way this bill strictly prescribes some things and ignores others is both inconvenient and ineffective. This legislation needs to be revised so that it actually accomplishes its intention (informing the public) without getting in the way of educating students (by being ugly, obtrusive and inconvenient).
Here’s the logo – which must be displayed no smaller than 150 x 150 pixels:
Here’s what the dog-ugly logo looks like on the Rockford Public Schools website:
Here are some of the problems with this legislation:
ADA Compliance: The bill prescribes that an image be placed on the front page of a school’s website, linking to certain details about its budget. The bill, however, says NOTHING about compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. So, for example, some of the K-12 schools (like Rockford here) that already have the ugly logo up have put it there without any alt tags so it’s invisible to visually-impaired web visitors.
- Solution: The bill needs to specify the alt text that should accompany the required image – ideally it will at the very least include the text on the image “Budget and Salary / Compensation Transparency Reporting.”
Aesthetics: I understand the need to have a readily-identifiable image for people to search for – but this campaign won’t accomplish that and it will mangle the design of college/university websites in the process. Can you imagine how Michigan State or the University of Michigan are going to integrate this turd into their gorgeous websites (which they use as marketing tools)?
- Solution: Options. Give schools some options to use in adding the logo in addition to just a square – a horizontal version, a vertical version, etc. It would also be great if the logo was one color or a vector graphic so that it could be easily integrated into the existing headers/footers of most websites in a way that the color could match the overall color scheme.
Ignorance About User Experience: As any website administrator will tell you, users almost completely ignore the content on the front page of a website nowadays if it’s unrelated to what they’re looking for.
What I’m saying is that no one actually sees content just because it’s on the front page of a website. I’ve learned this from nearly a decade of web design in higher education – our audiences know what they want and they’re not interested in anything unrelated. In the same way the single ruined our patience for listening to an entire album, search and social networking have made leisurely browsing of the web a thing of the past. That’s why taking up 22,500 pixels (about five percent of an 800 x 600 screen) on the front page of a website is completely pointless.
You’d actually have more people find the information by just prescribing it be a text link (because at least that would be guaranteed to show up in a search engine algorithm).
Consider also the mobile web: many more users are going online with mobile phones and many web content systems that optimize webpages for mobile viewing strip out images to save on the time it takes to load the page – this may render the image invisible to mobile users (thus defeating the purpose of the legislation).
- Solution: De-emphasize having a static image as the primary way by which people will find this information and concentrate on optimizing it for search engines. In addition to requiring the information be on each college webpage (linked from the front however the college wishes to accomplish this – perhaps a link in the footer for uniformity) – the state should build a sub-site that collects/aggregates all of this information from schools. A comprehensive repository would be far more efficient for citizens to access than going from website to website to compare budgetary information between schools. It would also standardize the data – and if you required schools to link back to this sub-site it would ensure that everything is easily-found when people query Google for “Michigan Education Transparency.”
Ignorance About SEO: There’s nothing in the bill specifying the various components of web design that are ACTUALLY important – like the page title, wording, and navigation. Those things are critical to Search Engine Optimization – the practice of organizing and publishing web content so that it is easily and correctly indexed by search engines like Google so that it shows up in the top results when people search for it (or similar content). Traffic driven by search engines accounts for the majority of the traffic higher education sites receive – at my college it’s regularly 60 percent or more.
- Solution: Provide more specifications and keywords or copy that optimize the indexing of this information by search engines.
No Mention of Social Media: Long ago websites fell by the wayside as the primary venue through which communication between an organization and its constituents takes place. Social Media sites like Facebook dominate the schedules of virtually everyone with Internet access regardless of age.
To truly reach people, this information needs to be social. It needs to both reside within social networking sites AND be easily shared with social sharing buttons.
- Solution: Specify that the webpage for each school upon which this budgetary information resides be communicated via whatever social media networks each school uses regularly to communicate with its publics. Similarly, it wouldn’t be a stretch to ask that social sharing buttons be added to the page in question with a tool like AddThis (as most schools don’t already have them built into their webpage templates).
As I previously said, I’m all for transparency – but let’s be transparent in a way that is effective and fair for everyone.
The Full Text of the Legislation
P.A. 201 of 2012, Sec. 209. (1) Within 30 days after the board of a community college adopts its annual operating budget for the following school fiscal year, or after the board adopts a subsequent revision to that budget, the community college shall make all of the following available through a link on its website homepage:
(a) The annual operating budget and subsequent budget revisions.
(b) A link to the most recent “Activities Classification Structure Manual for Michigan Community Colleges”.
(c) Links to all of the following for the community college:
(i) The current collective bargaining agreement for each bargaining unit.
(ii) Each health care benefits plan, including, but not limited to, medical, dental, vision, disability, long-term care, or any other type of benefits that would constitute health care services, offered to any bargaining unit or employee of the community college.
(iii) Audits and financial reports for the most recent fiscal year for which they are available.
(iv) A copy of the board of trustees resolution regarding compliance with best practices for the local strategic value component described in section 230(3).
(2) For statewide consistency and public visibility, community colleges must use the icon badge provided by the department of technology, management, and budget consistent with the icon badge developed by the department of education for K-12 school districts. It must appear on the front of each community college’s homepage. The size of the icon may be reduced to 150 x 150 pixels. To be in compliance with this section, all data elements defined in this section must be available on the college’s homepage by December 31, 2012. Each community college shall notify the state budget office when all data elements defined in this section are made available on its website.
(3) The state budget director shall determine whether a community college has complied with this section. The state budget director may withhold a community college’s monthly installments described in section 206 until the community college complies with this section. The state budget director shall notify the chairs of the house and senate appropriations subcommittee on community colleges at least 10 days before withholding funds from any community college.
(4) Each community college shall report the following information to the senate and house appropriations subcommittees on community colleges, the senate and house fiscal agencies, and the state budget office by November 15, 2012, and post that information on the internet website required under subsection (1):
(a) Budgeted fiscal year 2012-2013 general fund revenue from tuition and fees.
(b) Budgeted fiscal year 2012-2013 general fund revenue from state appropriations.
(c) Budgeted fiscal year 2012-2013 general fund revenue from property taxes.
(d) Budgeted fiscal year 2012-2013 total general fund revenue.
(e) Budgeted fiscal year 2012-2013 total general fund expenditures.
This bill was proposed by Republicans – specifically Bob Genetski (R-Saugatuck) - which control both houses of the legislature as well as the governor’s office and the state supreme court. So much for “limited government.” Moreover, I don’t see a butt-ugly logo on the websites of all legislators linking to a detailed report of their campaign finances. Hypocrisy much?
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"...and you shall have no pie."As my parents tell it, when I was an infant my first word wasn't a word - it was an entire sentence. Very little has changed.
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