Government Web portals have come a long way since the early 1990s, when the main objective of the public sector's first foray on the Internet was posting bare-bones text, such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
The latest iteration of the Virginia.gov home page is a testament to the technological progress of the past 15 years. It's a veritable playground for Web 2.0 connoisseurs: Links to podcasts, live help chat, really simple syndication (RSS) feeds and YouTube videos are featured prominently in an on-screen menu. It also offers alerts, traffic updates, weather conditions and a Flash menu of most popular online services, which include everything from fishing licenses to a dangerous dog registry.
It's a current-gen portal that feels very much "next-gen."
On these merits, the Center for Digital Government awarded Virginia first place in the state portal category in the 2008 Best of the Web Awards. But Virginia Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra isn't resting on the praise. He's already thinking up ideas for Virginia's next-generation portal, which he says will be designed for the growing use of mobile devices, instead of PCs.
"What we're seeing in the marketplace is that people are creating completely new concepts, leveraging the mobile platform like no place on earth in a PC world," Chopra said. "So it almost makes a new way of thinking. I haven't yet figured out the best way to organize around mobility, but that's next on my list."
That's Chopra's vision, but many other ideas are floating around about what the next-generation of Web portals will look like and what technologies will emerge. Innovation is coming soon: Texas, Georgia, New York state and New Jersey are procuring new Web portals, with rollout expected in 2009 or 2010. California is also exploring an overhaul.
IT officials typically are mum about what they want from a next-gen portal when they're in the middle of an ongoing RFP process. Nevertheless, nuggets of insight can be gleaned from the proposal documents and "vision statements" that are published prior to picking a vendor. For instance, the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) outlined in a comprehensive "vision document" the technologies it expects to be included in the next version of TexasOnline, www.texasonline.com, which will be unveiled in as soon as 2009.
"Web widgets, also known as gadgets and portlets, will be the main way users can personalize content on TexasOnline," according to the document. "Web widgets are pluggable, user-interface components displayed in a personalized dashboard. Content from multiple sources is streamed onto one location, where the user can get a snapshot of all interested information and services in a single view. Common Web widgets include e-mail, news feeds, discussion forums and weather reports."
The portal could also include features such as federated identity management, which shares user information among numerous agencies; a content management system that would enable quicker development of e-services; and Web tools, like RSS and mash-ups that incorporate online geographic maps.
TexasOnline might also expand upon the transactional fees that make the portal self-funded, according to the DIR document. Since its inception, TexasOnline has processed more than $6 billion in state and local revenue via an estimated 80 million financial transactions.
"I think the [portal's] mission has to be redefined to providing services that most state and local governments can provide where a citizen can utilize them every day and every week," said Gary Miglicco, vice president of public services for BearingPoint, the company that currently operates TexasOnline and has re-bid for the contract. That increased traffic could be driven, at least in part, by offerings like social networking, he said.
Other states - namely New York and Georgia - recognize the appeal of Web 2.0, but appear to be focusing more on simplifying business processes. "When