such as online payments, e-forms and user authentication, Trimble said. "With Flex Foundation, our customers get typically anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the solution out of the box," he said. They use those templates to develop functions tailored to their needs.

When a state doesn't take an enterprise approach like Mississippi's, each agency chooses its own software and builds a separate suite of applications to conduct its own online transactions, Trimble said. "And they build it from scratch," he added. "They don't get the 60 to 80 percent out of the box. They build and write custom code, which is very expensive, very time consuming, and has a lot of risk inherent in that approach."

Working with its vendors, Mississippi ITS created an e-government infrastructure, built five initial applications and redesigned its portal to make it easier for citizens to navigate. The applications - all of which came online by August of this year - allow a citizen to renew a driver's license or have one reinstated; purchase a copy of his or her motor vehicle records; obtain a hunting or fishing license; renew a boat registration; and obtain or renew an architecture license.

The redesigned portal organizes information according to interests the visitor has, such as "Working in Mississippi" or "Learning in Mississippi," rather than by agency names. It provides an enterprise search engine as well, allowing visitors to seek information from all state agencies at once by entering keywords.

ITS also worked with EZGov to develop a payment engine that links online transactions to the state's automated accounting system. When a visitor makes an online payment, "all of the back-end accounting is done for them automatically as part of the payment," Litchliter said. By contrast, when agencies take money in person or by mail, they have to account for those payments one at a time. The convenience of automated accounting is a big incentive for agencies to add applications to the portal, he said.

Cookie Cutter Approach

As the state adds these new applications, linking each one back to the accounting system is simple - "really kind of like a cookie cutter approach at the back end," Litchliter said. "All we need to know is what account the money gets distributed to and what the distribution rules are, and it's pretty easy to automate from that point on."

While the enterprise portal gives state agencies an easy way to collect and account for fees, it gives citizens "a much richer experience," Litchliter said. "I think the overall design and usability of the Web site is much better than it was before. It affords a citizen many different paths to get to the same information. It's kind of like a "no wrong door" approach to designing and collecting and providing information. You can just about get to anything from any page."

ITS designed, but has not yet released, another online transaction allowing businesses to obtain permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality. Other applications under consideration include a payroll information lookup for state employees; a facility for businesses to file unemployment taxes; more applications for obtaining professional licenses; and a system to help a car dealers verify customers' driver's licenses before allowing them to test drive a vehicle.

Looking back on the portal development project, Litchliter observed that ITS and Mississippi government as a whole did well when they laid the groundwork for cooperation among stakeholders. "I think we made some good decisions early on about the approach we wanted to take," he said. "But the real key to our success was that we had a good collaborative plan that we worked on with other state entities."

Contributing Writer Merrill Douglas is a freelance writer based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology. E-mail: mdouglas@stny.rr.com

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer