Weighing Value

Good intentions don't always stack up.

by / June 3, 2004
Editor's note: Leslie Friesen is the Senior Applications Support Analyst and webmaster for both Polk County, Ore., and Dallas, Ore.

The phenomenal explosion of interactive services offered on government sites raises questions about the value of those services. Is it a wise use of taxpayer money to offer a service simply because it's cool and we've learned how to do it? Of course not.

While most agree e-government's goals are better service delivery and government efficiency, it is difficult to quantify those goals.

In 2003, Oakland County, Mich.'s eGovernment group conducted a rare cost/benefit analysis focused on providing interactive applications via the Web. The study revealed that 1,204,767 documents were downloaded from the county's Web site during 2003. After applying the cost of having a clerk -- $14.28 per hour for a Clerk I position -- take phone calls and subsequently mail documents to requestors, the county estimated it saved $2,373,391 annually by providing the services online.

Time is money, and each document downloaded represents one less trip to the courthouse and one less customer to assist in person.

The study did not, however, factor in the cost of developing and maintaining the Web site. Applications don't write themselves, and servers aren't built without the assistance of IT staff members who expect payment for their efforts. When gauging the success of e-government, the cost of developing these sites must not be overlooked.

Quantifying intangibles, such as the element of convenience, challenges hard-number crunching as well. Can we assign a dollar amount to citizen satisfaction? Customer satisfaction and convenience merit recognition, but how do we merge that abstract value into a cost/benefit study?

Doug Finnman, Internet and Document Information Systems Manager for Fort Collins, Colo., said he uses the value on investment (VOI) approach.

Acknowledging the difficulty in measuring a Web site's benefits through increased sales or revenues, as the private sector does, Fort Collins believes it is realizing a strong VOI based on measures such as overall use of the site; citizen self-service/convenient access to e-services; citizen interaction; quality, timeliness and accuracy of services; and increased productivity and resource savings.


Evaluating the Data
Both Oakland County and Fort Collins deserve recognition for taking efforts to perform some type of cost/benefit analysis on their Web sites. The vast majority of local governments rely solely on public feedback and analyzing Web logs to make this determination.

The overall picture occasionally gets fogged over in our eagerness to embrace the advantages of e-government. Evaluating the data can easily become a subjective process.

OpenDemocracy recently published an article by Keith Culver that examined an experiment by Saint John, New Brunswick, to conduct a public consultation on the tough financial choices looming in their budget process. The city expended significant effort and resources soliciting public participation. Online participation included 218 people, and officials agreed the electronic consultation was worth repeating.

Saint John's population is approximately 75,000, so participation of 218 citizens translates into only 0.29 percent of the population. Meeting less than 1 percent of the population's needs hardly qualifies as a success.

Good intentions, certainly, but not good numbers.


Determining Which Services to Offer
Today, states, counties and cities across the country engage in experimental applications and services, some of which will be useful, and others not. Care must be taken to evaluate both the fiscal savings and the human factor in these experiments.

Fort Collins discovered that considerable development time and resources were wasted when an average of only five people joined virtual chat rooms with their officials. Bend, Ore., learned the hard way that online forums could easily violate open meeting laws, according to Patricia Stell, city recorder.

"The ease in which the Internet works makes it very easy to slip into a rolling meeting," Stell said. "This occurred in our town, and the result was much embarrassment. To correct the matter, we held a meeting in public so the matter would be discussed publicly."

Ouch.

Steve Johnson, director of Information Technologies of Cayuga County, N.Y., cautions agencies considering the use of a forum type of two-way communication. Public forums allow anyone to read the comments posted, whether or not the information contained is accurate or official -- a can of worms waiting to be opened.

Online directories for local business, restaurants, churches and other organizations warrant careful consideration as well. This information is certainly valuable to the public, but government can't even appear to provide an unfair advantage to those businesses listed on its site.

Government's role in the business community is to "create a positive economic climate in which businesses may grow and prosper," said Phil Bertolini, IT director of Oakland County. "It is not in the business to promote any specific private-sector activity, whether it's business, nonprofit, educational or individual."

A strong argument exists that promoting business and tourism is a valid use of taxpayer money because it indirectly benefits the taxpayer by strengthening the local economy. Most government sites offer links to local chambers of commerce to assist this sector, while many others, such as Cayuga County, N.Y., sponsor extensive Web portals on a secondary site.


Determining the Future
The explosion of interactive services and applications will continue to flourish. Today's governments must be forward thinking, especially with nine in 10 school-age children having access to a computer, said Bertolini, citing the Commerce Department's Census Bureau. Kids surf the Internet more than they talk on the telephone, and will demand that e-government only expand in the years to come.

Local leaders must carefully consider the fiscal responsibility associated with e-government, in addition to the VOI factor. Resources are best spent on solid business services and applications that not only make public interaction quicker and easier, but also save taxpayer money.

Cost/benefit analysis and accountability must become the norm rather than the exception.
Leslie Friesen Contributing Writer