The Center for Digital Government's 2005 Best of the Web winners raise the bar for government Web portals. This year's top five -- Delaware, Tennessee, Indiana, Washington and Virginia -- balance innovation and customer service to create portals with plenty of bells and whistles without compromising ease of use.

Judging criteria was organized into categories: innovation, functionality, efficiency and economy. At the forefront was Delaware.gov, advancing from fourth place last year.

Top-Notch Portal

With more than 30 years in the customer service industry, Delaware CIO Thomas Jarrett believes in the power of good communication. Delaware's Department of Technology and Information (DTI) pairs with the state's Government Information Center -- considered the keeper of content -- to offer citizens a first-rate Web portal.

Jarrett said this combined venture is a leading factor in the Web portal's success. "I'm most proud of the people involved because it's been a real team effort," he said.

Delaware.gov is maintained in-house by the DTI, which requires agencies to use a template that gives the entire site a unified look.

"I think a lot of people feel that common look and feel can be boring," Jarrett said, acknowledging that promoting a standard appearance for the site can be a challenge.

"Agencies want to come up with their own way of doing things to differentiate themselves. We aren't trying to stop that, but we also believe that if a portal is going to be useful to citizens, they have to be able to navigate. No matter where they go, it ought to generally be the same so the navigation is the same," he said.

This does not mean Web sites must be dull, Jarrett said.

"My department took an effort to redesign our Web site and keep it in the confines for the common look and feel, but push the envelope," he said. "Coming from the private sector, I believe that Web sites need to be not only constantly changed and updated, but they need to be catchy if you're going to get people to use them and come to your site."

Delaware's Web portal features several innovations. The most recent, called Really Simple Syndication (RSS) audio podcasting, was piloted in March 2005, and offers an audio history of Delaware. To use the service, citizens install a podcast aggregator program on their computers or MP3 players, and then locate the RSS feeds they wish to subscribe to on the state portal. The aggregator software issues an alert when new podcast sound files are available, and can distribute the files to users. Future RSS podcasting will offer an events calendar and updates on road conditions.

Delaware also offers an e-mail subscription service that enables citizens to choose what information they'd like to receive.

"People want to be informed, and we ought to give them that ability by not just pushing information on them, but allowing them to select the information they want on the basis they want it," Jarrett said about Delaware.gov's e-mail subscription service. Some of the available subscriptions include school closings, legislative actions, traffic conditions, environmental discharges, public education and sex offender notifications.

Lynn Hersey-Miller, chief program officer of the DTI, explained that Delaware's e-government program relies on input from key representatives of major state agencies.

"We've set up a core group of representatives to talk about things like building a solid infrastructure that will not only provide security, but also will meet business needs," said Hersey-Miller.

Surveys help provide clear direction for the state, she said. "Just by getting some of these key people together with the technical people at DTI, we're coming up with great ideas for future initiatives."

The Runner-Up Is ...

Tennessee.gov -- placing second -- also promotes universal presentation throughout its state Web sites.

"We're looking at the entire state of Tennessee as the enterprise, and not permitting agencies to do their own Web sites using their own styles, formats and presentation methods," said Tennessee CIO Bill Ezell.

Though Delaware designed and maintains its state portal in-house, Tennessee uses a vendor to accomplish its portal goals -- a successful partnership, according to Ezell.

"The National Information Consortium [NIC] has been very good to work with and has brought some good ideas to the table," he said. "When we started this contract with them five years ago, we were certainly novices when it came to Web sites, portal activities and online services. They had some experience on us, but they've also learned along with us."

Ezell said Tennessee saw adoption rates increase since 2004 in several service areas:

  • Online sales and use tax filings are up 56 percent;

  • online health licensing renewals are up 20 percent;

  • online professional privilege tax filings are up 117 percent; and

  • online driver's license reinstatements are up 45 percent.

    Overall, Tennessee.gov has a monthly visitor average of 823,000, Ezell said. Online services not only benefit citizens, they also save the state money. Moving applications online results in an average 67 percent decrease in the total cost per transaction, according to a review conducted by the state.

    "Tennessee is a very fiscally conservative state. We're always looking for ways to be more effective and efficient, and the Web helps us manage our resources much better," Ezell said, adding that having a governor with a strong technical background raises the bar.

    "Gov. Bredesen is very astute when it comes to technology. He has a vision for how you can use it and make it beneficial, which has given [those] who deal with technology in Tennessee a lot of backing and expectations."

    Citizens also have expectations, which makes providing good customer service important to Ezell and his team. "Listening to customers is a really big deal with us. We make sure we know what people want and how they want it."

    RSS audio podcasting and Spanish translation each provide services to citizens when and how they want it.

    Through the portal, citizens can monitor traffic conditions and submit photos. The state hopes that allowing for photo submissions will attract people and lure them back for repeat visits. More than 500 photos have been submitted since the feature was first offered in June 2004.

    The portal also offers educational information -- students can find facts, symbols, science, geography, history, biographies, mathematics, technology, social sciences and the arts, all relating to Tennessee.

    More High-Ranking States

    Coming in third, accessIndiana attracts more than 30 million hits per month and has collected $37 million in state revenues. The portal -- with more than 300 available services and 550 submission forms -- allows citizens to conduct much of their state business online.

    Access Washington -- ranked fourth -- sought to increase user satisfaction, and in September 2004 the state's Department of Information Services launched a user-centered portal redesign.

    Once extensive customer feedback testing was complete, the redesign's main goals were to provide positive citizen experience, to organize content for increased efficiency and to develop logical and intuitive navigation. Results showed that 90 percent of the time, users successfully found what they were looking for -- a 40 percent increase from before the redesign.

    Virginia.gov -- taking fifth place -- continues to strive for new ways to increase portal efficiency, including the Payment Portal service, a moving violations and pre-payable offenses service -- which processes more than 8,000 transactions monthly -- and the Healthy Virginians Scorecard, which helps citizens monitor health in Virginia schools.

    The scorecard posted on the portal monitors schools' progress toward meeting Gov. Mark Warner's initiative to promote good nutrition and physical activity in education. The initiative is meant to combat preventable diseases and childhood obesity. Participating K-12 schools are recognized for their efforts and awarded according to their successes.

    For information on runners-up in the Best of the Web survey, visit the Center for Digital Government's Web site.

    Sherry Watkins  |  Contributing Writer