Citizens First

E-government spurs local governments to better citizen service, ICMA survey finds.

by / January 26, 2005
E-government at the local level seems to be paying dividends.

Local governments respond to citizen requests for online services with a wide array of offerings, and plans for additional services are on the drawing boards, according to a recent survey on electronic government at the local level conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). The survey covered a broad range of topics, such as e-government services delivered, funding, Web site management and intranet use.

This article highlights the survey results focused on external customers -- the residents and businesses in responding jurisdictions.

High-Bandwidth Prevalence
Of the local governments surveyed, all with populations of 25,000 or more have Internet connectivity, and most have high-bandwidth connections. Twenty-two local governments -- all with fewer than 25,000 residents -- lacked Internet connectivity altogether.

A disproportionate percentage of smaller local governments with connectivity use dial-up -- almost 17 percent of those with populations from 2,500 to 4,999 reported dial-up use, which has implications for staff. The amount of time government staff in these jurisdictions spend using the Internet for work is higher -- loading information with graphics and completing forms online will be a frustrating experience at best.

Now and Later
Local governments use Web sites for various reasons -- to share information, issue permits and market the community to potential investors. Web sites also can serve as important community forums.

On the Up and Up
Slightly more than 10 percent of local governments currently offer online completion and submission of permit applications. Scottsdale, Ariz., (population 202,705) not only makes the online permit process available at convenient terminals throughout the city, it also offers on its Web site a home improvement workbook, guidelines and checklists.

Scottsdale linked permit applications to GIS services, so property and zoning information is automatically populated in the permit forms. Soon, Federal Emergency Management Agency flood data and digital plan submittal will be integrated as well.

To alleviate any confusion about the permit process, a detailed flowchart shows each step in the process. Most Scottsdale residents interested in cases going to public hearing (Planning Commission, City Council, etc.) visit the Web site for fact sheets, where application materials, staff reports and hearing minutes are posted.

"By weaving together our Web services with our internal databases and applications, we've increased efficiency, improved customer communication, reduced administrative costs and improved customer service," explained Beckye Frey, Planning and Development Services customer relations specialist. "While the benefits of e-services are easy to see, we are committed to providing excellent services to all our residents, not just the ones who are Web-savvy. To that end, we tend to use a combination of old and new methods, such as the pairing of notification postcards with case fact sheets. For Scottsdale, the combination is a winning one."

Planned Increase
The survey revealed interesting data about local governments' future plans to offer online transactions. Fifty percent or more of respondents intend to offer online payment of utility bills, fines or fees; completion and submission of permit applications and business license applications and renewals; online requests for records and services; registration for recreation activities and events; downloadable forms; GIS and mapping data; employment information; council agendas and minutes; and codes and ordinances.

The reports of future plans show smaller local governments taking advantage of online technology:

  • Although only 9 percent of all responding localities currently offer online utility bill payments, 50 percent plan to offer it, including close to 50 percent of those with populations of 5,000 to 9,999.
  • An impressive percentage of smaller local governments plan to offer online payment of fees and fines. 58 percent of governments with populations from 5,000 to 9,999 plan to offer online completion of business license applications and renewals, as do 38 percent of
  • those with populations from 2,500 to 4,999.

    Major Barriers
    Top barriers to e-government are identical to those reported in 2002: lack of Web staff (63 percent) and lack of financial resources (64 percent, up from 57 percent in 2002). Smaller communities were more likely to cite lack of Web staff as a problem, with close to 70 percent of those with populations from 2,500 to 9,999 identifying this barrier -- compared with approximately 50 percent of the larger localities.

    Lack of financial resources, however, does not appear related to population size. Generally the barriers to e-government reported by local jurisdictions remained consistent from 2002 to 2004, although the percentage reporting lack of information about e-government applications decreased, as has the percentage reporting security and privacy concerns, and the need to upgrade technology.

    Use of GIS
    Geographic information systems (GIS) introduce efficiencies for local governments and their customers. Montgomery County, Md., received a 2002 National Association of Counties Achievement Award for its streetlight malfunction reporting system. Montgomery County has a data catalog of available GIS information with prices ranging from $50 to $7,000.

    In Scottsdale, Ariz., residents and businesses can take advantage of GIS mapping features that show flood plain areas, airport noise contours, economic development fee reduction districts, cell towers, hillsides and deserts (environmentally sensitive lands ordinance areas), and other characteristics. The functionality includes printable maps, report generation and analysis.

    E-Government Creates Change
    When the percentages of local governments that identified positive effects of e-government are examined, population is a noticeable factor. The real determinant, however, may be that smaller local governments don't offer the services that would result in these positive effects. For example, if staff members manually enter data because the service is unavailable online, staff do not experience potential reduced demands on their time.

    For now, higher percentages of larger local governments typically report these benefits. (The percentage reporting an increase in non-tax-based revenue is negligible.) The exceptions are improvements in local government communication with the public and in customer service. There is not as wide a gap between the percentages of large and small local governments reporting these benefits as there is in the other positive effects. In fact, 60 local governments reported experiencing all of these benefits, and 13 of them have populations less than 10,000.
    Evelina Moulder Contributing Writer
    Evelina Moulder is director of survey research for International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C.