E-Government on a Budget

Using technology in government may not be cheap, but it has become more affordable thanks to low-cost e-government offerings for local jurisdictions.

by / November 21, 2002
Remember the five-and-dime Stores such as Woolworths or Kresge sold everyday household items at bargain prices. These stores flourished because they sold goods in large volume at low cost, rather than through high markups on individual items.

Well, that concept has returned. This time the items for sale are ready-to-run e-government Web sites, which have become as essential to local government as the supplies grandma used to buy at Woolworths decades ago. To make e-government affordable for the little guy, several firms have launched initiatives to put Web sites into the hands of small and medium-size jurisdictions at low prices.

Towns and cities, large and small, are buying. They range from Minnetonka, Minn., (pop. 51,301) and Avon, Conn. (pop. 16,000), to Anna Maria, Fla., (pop. 1,814) and Chapin, S.C. (pop. 628). In fact, hundreds of jurisdictions have turned to outside firms to create and host their Web sites, which feature a wide range of services, including citizen response centers, building permit services and even streaming video of city council meetings, complete with electronic document packages containing agenda items.

Affordable Is In
These public-private initiatives fill a growing need for out-of-the-box, ready-to-go e-government among small to medium-size jurisdictions, according to Marc Shapiro, manager of Internet services for the National League of Cities (NLC), a partner in Totally Web Government, which is a program run in conjunction with IBM and the National Association of Counties (NACo). Totally Web Government provides cities and counties with a hosted Web site, some basic online services and a variety of transactional modules, from which they can pick and choose.

"Smaller cities have an issue with internal staff capacity." Shapiro said. "They don't have enough people, and they also have an infrastructure problem." That assessment is backed by a recent survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) that found a shortage of qualified staff and lack of adequate technology and infrastructure were the leading barriers to e-government initiatives.

ICMA is backing a competing service called GovOffice, which is supported by state municipal leagues and Microsoft, and uses a Web creation and management technology developed by Avenet LLC. "Our solution addresses the unique needs of local governments, something they weren't getting from other commercial entities," said Eric Johnson, CEO of GovOffice. "These hosted software applications can be customized by jurisdictions of any size and they incorporate best practices into the system."

GovOffice also is aimed at local governments that need simple but effective e-government Web sites. For the most part, these are jurisdictions that either don't have any technical staff or can't afford to expand their current resources. Johnson pointed out that some of his customers include mayors who help maintain the town's Web site themselves. The emphasis is on ease-of-use, speed and simple maintenance.

Using nontechnical software, a jurisdiction's staff can create customized displays of information and events that update automatically, such as press releases and audio/video files. With GovOffice, a jurisdiction also can post a citizen complaint and survey form to find out about constituent concerns.

Totally Web Government uses an approach similar to GovOffice. Customer Web sites are hosted on a secure server so jurisdictions don't need to invest in the infrastructure and expertise necessary to run e-government internally. However, both offerings allow larger jurisdictions to self-host their applications. And both allow jurisdictions to migrate their existing Web sites to the hosted version.

Like GovOffice, Totally Web Government allows customers to set up a Web site quickly and provide the basics for interactivity with citizens through the use of citizen response forms, dynamic content management and automated schedules, so out-of-date events, such as past city council meetings don't remain posted.

The NLC/IBM/NACo initiative also offers a range of e-commerce modules, including building permits, business licensing, property tax payments and other financial transactions. Totally Web Government has just begun to offer these applications, according to Shapiro, so there's been no trend to indicate which are the most popular.

Different Fee Models
Because of their complexity, these transactional modules cost more. Startup fees are $1,000, and monthly subscriptions cost $155. The more basic Web services cost an initial $295 and have a $55 monthly subscription fee. GovOffice charges customers on a sliding scale based on population size.

A third initiative, called Virtual Town Hall, uses the same hosted model (sometimes referred to as an application service provider, or ASP) and allows a jurisdiction without any HTML or coding experience to create a Web site that contains interactive calendars, online forms, discussion forums, a property assessment database and a few simplified e-commerce applications.

So far, these affordable e-government solutions appear to be filling a niche. According to Johnson, GovOffice is off to a fast start since it went operational a year ago, signing up hundreds of customers in 40 states. Virtual Town Hall has inked deals with more than 40 clients in the past year, said Randy Perry, the company's senior vice president. In addition to providing local governments with a Web presence for their constituents, both GovOffice and Totally Web Government allow customers to set up intranets so documents and information can be securely shared among staff using the same software platform.

Plans are also underway to expand services. The NLC initiative is looking to add GIS and homeland security applications, and has plans to deliver broadband access to small, rural cities, which they would then offer to their citizens. GovOffice hopes to expand its content management capabilities through such ventures as a paperless city council service. In addition, Johnson said a growing number of jurisdictions that have established a basic Web presence now want to provide more services online, and plans are underway to meet that need.

Homegrown E-Government
Of course, not every local government, including small jurisdictions, will outsource its e-government operations. All local governments, whether they run e-government internally or let a third party host their Web site, have to figure out what to offer their citizens and how to pay for it.

Gaithersburg, Md., with a population of 52,613, falls between the small and medium size for local governments. It has a handful of IT staff members who have developed and assists in running the city's e-government Web site. Barry Smith directs Gaithersburg's IT department, but he also manages programs and helps run the help desk.

With a background in both IT and business administration, Smith knows both sides of the challenge in using technology to deliver government services to citizens. One of the biggest hurdles for a small jurisdiction is establishing a governance structure that will decide which e-government services to initiate.

"You need to focus on those things that people want to do without face-to-face government," he said. "Beyond that, there's a limited need for e-government."

Smith believes small governments will do well by implementing online services that keep citizens informed about what their government is doing, and providing a few popular transactional services, such as reserving classes offered by the parks and recreation department or renewing business licenses. Small governments should be wary of attempting to put too many services online, partly due to limited resources and partly because of privacy concerns, but also because the state and federal sector offer a burgeoning number of online services. "Your local e-government platform has to be leveraged against what the states and feds are offering," he explained.

To make the right decisions, Smith suggests small cities and counties use committees to identify the right projects to initiate and then secure approval for them at the highest level. The measuring stick for what to do and not to do should be value, according to Smith.

As for funding, he feels e-government should be treated like any other IT project. "If it's worth doing, then fund it," said Smith. Funding shouldn't come through user fees, however. "E-government should either keep the cost of a transaction the same or should reduce it. The cost of a transaction shouldn't go up."

The bottom line, Smith said, is that once e-government is established, it becomes pervasive both internally and externally. That means the services and the systems that run them require a long-term commitment.

Tod Newcombe Features Editor