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

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor