If necessity is the mother of invention, in Mississippi it's also the mother of collaboration. "We just don't have a lot of money available to do the things we need to do," explained David Litchliter, Mississippi's chief information officer and executive director of the state's Department of Information Technology Services (ITS). So when it came time to deliver e-government services through a new state portal, tight budgets helped persuade state agencies to agree on a single platform for all applications.
"The more we can leverage costs across multiple solutions, and solutions for multiple entities, people are more and more open to that type of thing," Litchliter said.
For citizens, Mississippi's collaborative approach has yielded a suite of easy-to-find services with a common look and feel. For the state, creating an enterprise infrastructure for many online services has saved time and money. It's also provided an automated, streamlined interface between disparate applications and back-office systems.
When Mississippi started developing its e-government vision, the state already had a portal, but it was "not very comprehensive," Litchliter said. It served mainly to steer visitors to separate state agency Web sites. Without a central search engine, citizens could find services only if they knew which agencies provided them. At the same time, the site offered no facilities for renewing licenses, paying fees or conducting other business transactions.
Mississippi officials wanted to deliver true e-government, but faced a dilemma. To save money up front, many states were building portals through contracts that were based on transaction volume: The more traffic a new system drew, the more the state paid the software vendor. "We didn't feel that would work for our state, because the volume wasn't going to be anything like it was in Texas or California," Litchliter said.
Mississippi officials heard that some vendors were losing money on transaction-based agreements. Mississippi's portal traffic may have been insufficient to support that type of arrangement, Litchliter said. "When we put our RFP together, we had a lot of vendors tell us that if we were going to try and follow that model, they probably wouldn't bother to bid."
Laying a Foundation
Rather than follow the pay-as-you-go route, Mississippi ITS obtained one-time funding from the state Legislature to build a central e-government infrastructure. This backbone would support online services for any number of state agencies. The money also would allow ITS to create and pilot a handful of online applications. When a citizen paid a fee online, the state would add a small surcharge - $1 or less. As portal traffic grew, ITS expected those transaction charges to support ongoing operations and maintenance, and perhaps help finance new applications.
Mississippi ITS released an RFP in January 2001, and awarded the contract to a team headed by EZGov Inc. and IBM in April 2001. EZGov provided its Flex Foundation e-government software and developed most of the online applications, said Ed Trimble, CEO of the Atlanta-based firm. IBM provided the hardware and underlying software, and linked the e-government system with agencies' back-office systems.
Other members of the team included KPMG, which helped Mississippi develop its e-government business model; Siebel Systems, which provided a customer relationship management solution; and Ciber Inc., which performed technical development as a subcontractor to IBM.
The team's proposal was attractive because Mississippi already chose IBM products to develop a system for the state tax commission, and it wanted to adopt a standard platform for all of state government, Litchliter said. EZGov's software could save application developers a great deal of time as well. "We would be able to reuse code from one application to the next if there was similarity there," he said.
Flex Foundation makes it simple and inexpensive to develop e-government services because it provides basic components for functions 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: firstname.lastname@example.org