Articles

Effective Strategies for Renewing and Upgrading Old Portals

This excerpt from a strategy paper from the Center for Digital Government examines some of the key issues to consider when upgrading or renewing a government web portal serving citizens.

by / January 2, 2008
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"It's got good bones but the years have caught up with it. There's a lot to work with here, so let's get started." Such is the commentary that begins each episode of the popular long-running public television series "This Old House." Much the same could be said of public sector portals, many of them developed a decade ago at the beginning of the e-government (or government improvement) movement.

The Center for Digital Government has been a keen observer of state and local government portals since their inception in the mid-1990s. With a wink and a nod to the TV series that started the home improvement revolution, and a tip of the hat to the thousands of public servants and their private partners who labored tirelessly on the first generation of e-government services, this white paper takes a fresh look at "This Old Portal." It too has good bones and great possibilities when considering the future of public service delivery.

When Norm Abram, Kevin O'Connor, Tom Silva and the "This Old House" crew show up, they refresh component by component. By the time the foundation has been reinforced and new plumbing, electrical, and window and wall treatments installed, the project emerges as one that respects and reflects the history and the local uniqueness of the original structure, and is thoroughly modern in meeting both the standards and expectations of contemporary families in contemporary communities.

For those same reasons, it is time for a "This Old Portal" renovation. While Norm, Kevin and Tom are concerned with doors, windows, plumbing and electrical, a structural refresh of the government portal also begins at the foundation, followed by a component-by-component renovation:

Governance
- The cornerstone of the foundation, governance is vital in establishing structural strength and defining the parameters within which the structure is built, maintained and sustained. It can be fairly compared to homeowner associations in covenant communities. The good ones are worth much fine gold; the ones that don't work (or may be just indifferent or unable to execute their responsibilities) are perpetual sources of frustration.

Executive Championship
- The person in view here is the equivalent of the homeowner -- the one person who has the vision for what "done" looks like, who holds the contractor and the crafts people to account, rolls up his or her sleeves and lends a hand when there's trouble, and tells the kids to wipe their feet before going inside. It's their house; they have to live in it.

Architecture
- As with homebuilding, this is the blueprint. The architecture is the set of technical drawings used to make the champion's vision and the artist's rendering a reality.

Infrastructure and Capacity
- From the electronic equivalents of floor joists to roof trusses, these are the structural components that ensure the home will be big enough and strong enough to handle everything its occupants demand of it.

Funding
- Matching funding with needs is why there are "starter homes." They help owners build equity, become familiar with homeownership and begin to think about what kind of home they'll need next for their growing family. Along the way, they confront the trade-offs associated with getting into the house, keeping the bills current (or paying operational expenses) and finding a way to set a little aside for continued improvements. There is no single right answer, but any number of combinations of build, buy or lease options allow owners to go it alone or partner up.

Curb Appeal
- Defining a suite of services appropriate to how people live and how businesses operate by setting priorities and selection criteria for what to build, when to build it, and how it should look, act and

feel when the construction is completed. Each of these components to a "This Old Portal" renovation will be discussed in turn (and they among others are digested in the accompanying Portal Punchlist).

Virtual Renewal
The American construction industry has long relied upon a punchlist -- a list of tasks or "to-do" items -- that must be completed to satisfy the terms of the contract. As used here, the Portal Punchlist takes a broader view of must do and must have components of a successful online strategy in state and local government.

A Plan
- Sometimes as conceptual as an artist's rendering or as detailed as blueprints, a sustainable portal plan rests on the cornerstone of communicating effectively and handling transactions between people and their government. It's a master e-government plan and details what the government wants to achieve, how it will happen, timelines, and who is responsible for doing what.

- This cornerstone approach is synonymous with what is often called Web 1.0 - a back-to-basics view of online service delivery that provides the foundation for collaboration and social networking (Web 2.0) and the evolution of a worldwide database that strings together formerly discrete strands of information into a thinking [or semantic] web (Web 3.0).

Architecture and Infrastructure
- Home builders and portal owners alike still have things to learn about webs from spiders. The arachnids' webs are structurally strong, elegantly yet economically designed, rapidly recoverable, and built to deliver value time after time.

- Spiders have also figured out how to play to strengths in terms of infrastructure. The have an uncanny ability to locate their webs in high traffic areas while leveraging the work and investment of others -- weaving their traps in door frames and spans among posts, walls and ceilings. Portal builders also need to play to such infrastructure strengths.

An Owner and Champion
- Just as homes reflect the tastes, priorities and values of their owners, so too do public sector portals. Portal owners -- or, more precisely, champions -- are often the deciding and driving factor in the development of stand-out portals that combine function-forward design and a suite of applications that meet the needs and expectations of businesses and residents.

- Portal champions also play a key role in persuading the widest swath of agencies possible to look beyond their organization's four walls to a wider view of how they fit in a wider ecosystem or community.

A Community
- Despite e-commerce-inspired references to storefronts and shopping carts, a portal is less like a strip mall than a community in which formerly separate entities come together to create a good place through which public information and services can be delivered.

- To those ends, the communities of interest that have formed around public portals are self-governing through a basic set or policies or rules that balance agency autonomy with the interdependence that comes with a networked world.

- Central to any such governance structure -- often adapted from models that have worked elsewhere -- is a mutually agreeable issue escalation and resolution process that lends itself to timely decisions for the good of the order.

Curb Appeal and Livability
- Visitors expect that, on arrival, the path to the front door will be clear, clean and safe. Once inside, switches, faucets and appliances should look, feel and act like those in other houses. So it is with public portals. Commonly used navigation and search functions help visitors find what they are looking for -- where and how they expect.

- The user experience -- not to mention the underlying economics of the portal -- are enhanced by incorporating applications and appliances that have been proven elsewhere.

is Old Portal" renovation will be discussed in turn (and they among others are digested in the accompanying Portal Punchlist).

Virtual Renewal
The American construction industry has long relied upon a punchlist -- a list of tasks or "to-do" items -- that must be completed to satisfy the terms of the contract. As used here, the Portal Punchlist takes a broader view of must do and must have components of a successful online strategy in state and local government.

A Plan
- Sometimes as conceptual as an artist's rendering or as detailed as blueprints, a sustainable portal plan rests on the cornerstone of communicating effectively and handling transactions between people and their government. It's a master e-government plan and details what the government wants to achieve, how it will happen, timelines, and who is responsible for doing what.

- This cornerstone approach is synonymous with what is often called Web 1.0 - a back-to-basics view of online service delivery that provides the foundation for collaboration and social networking (Web 2.0) and the evolution of a worldwide database that strings together formerly discrete strands of information into a thinking [or semantic] web (Web 3.0).

Architecture and Infrastructure
- Home builders and portal owners alike still have things to learn about webs from spiders. The arachnids' webs are structurally strong, elegantly yet economically designed, rapidly recoverable, and built to deliver value time after time.

- Spiders have also figured out how to play to strengths in terms of infrastructure. The have an uncanny ability to locate their webs in high traffic areas while leveraging the work and investment of others -- weaving their traps in door frames and spans among posts, walls and ceilings. Portal builders also need to play to such infrastructure strengths.

An Owner and Champion
- Just as homes reflect the tastes, priorities and values of their owners, so too do public sector portals. Portal owners -- or, more precisely, champions -- are often the deciding and driving factor in the development of stand-out portals that combine function-forward design and a suite of applications that meet the needs and expectations of businesses and residents.

- Portal champions also play a key role in persuading the widest swath of agencies possible to look beyond their organization's four walls to a wider view of how they fit in a wider ecosystem or community.

A Community
- Despite e-commerce-inspired references to storefronts and shopping carts, a portal is less like a strip mall than a community in which formerly separate entities come together to create a good place through which public information and services can be delivered.

- To those ends, the communities of interest that have formed around public portals are self-governing through a basic set or policies or rules that balance agency autonomy with the interdependence that comes with a networked world.

- Central to any such governance structure -- often adapted from models that have worked elsewhere -- is a mutually agreeable issue escalation and resolution process that lends itself to timely decisions for the good of the order.

Curb Appeal and Livability
- Visitors expect that, on arrival, the path to the front door will be clear, clean and safe. Once inside, switches, faucets and appliances should look, feel and act like those in other houses. So it is with public portals. Commonly used navigation and search functions help visitors find what they are looking for -- where and how they expect.

- The user experience -- not to mention the underlying economics of the portal -- are enhanced by incorporating applications and appliances that have been proven elsewhere.

A Funding Model that is More than a Death Pledge
- The 2007 meltdown of the sub-prime mortgage4 market provides, by analogy, a useful caution about ensuring sustainable funding for the portal. Case in point -- by 2005, California realized it could no longer afford the fee-for-service maintenance contract it had with the original contractor.
The state has since successfully built the portal from the foundation up -- and, in so doing, reduced operating costs to levels that can be supported during even tough times.

- Cost models vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A decade of e-government experience has resulted in multiple funding hybrids that have been customized to suit local conditions. Such blended models draw from conventional time and materials charges and fixed fees to advertising and the now dominant transaction-based (so-called self-funded) approach that is choice of 20 states.

DIY vs. Build or Buy
- A number of governments have competently taken a do-I t yourself (DIY) approach to building out their portals, soliciting advice from "This Old House" consultants Norm, Kevin and Tom when they run across the unexpected or want to make improvements that are beyond their reach.
- Other governments -- including nearly half of all 50 states -- have decided that building and operating a portal is not a core competence of government and have partnered with commercial third parties to build, run and help fund the portal.


The full strategy paper can be obtained from the Center for Digital Government at http://www.centerdigitalgov.com/story.php?id=106052.