Best of the Web

Security and access challenges are keeping government from taking full advantage of the Internet. But those challenges

by / March 31, 1996
Government agencies, like companies, are struggling with the difficult task of delivering meaningful services online. There are legitimate reasons as to why the difficulties exist. Among the most frequently cited roadblocks are lack of access and lack of security.

The lack of access argument is becoming less prevalent as Internet user estimates now run as high as 50 million. Further, many states are exploring significant funding mechanisms to make public access to technology, and more specifically the Internet, more widely available. Texas, for instance, has created the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (HB2128), which will award $150 million in grants and loans per year for technology upgrades in schools, libraries and hospitals. The fund is expected to exceed $1.5 billion over the next 10 years.

The perceived lack of security of financial transactions is a significant reason why conducting direct business over the Internet has not exploded. There are at least two reasons why government Internet service delivery may have a distinct advantage over services offered by the private sector.

First, although government services are frequently transaction-based, they do not always involve a direct financial transaction. Also, while there are often confidentiality issues for government transactions, which raise similar security concerns, voluntary disclosure of personal information will demonstrate the public's perceived value of online service delivery.

If a service delivered online effectively reduces the time and effort required to accomplish a task and comply with government regulation, citizens will weigh the risk they feel regarding the disclosure of personal information vs. the convenience being provided. It seems likely convenience will win. It is not difficult to draw the comparison of registering a car online against going to a motor vehicle office. Both kiosks and mail service have already become popular delivery vehicles for this type of service. The added convenience of Internet-delivered services should be well-received.

The second reason government Web sites have an advantage is that the widest possible dissemination of government information will frequently lead to increased public awareness and benefit. Increased public access to government information is generally viewed as a value-added service by itself.

For example, if a state signs a multi-year, multi-million dollar agreement over the use of public lands, after which there is a period of public comment, a Web site with details about the deal and proposed land use that solicits feedback via e-mail would likely bring much broader public discussion and participation than regional public hearings that are often poorly attended.

Despite the arguments against Internet-delivered services, there are several examples where governments are successfully using this medium. America's Job Bank at offers job opportunities online that were traditionally available only by visiting a regional Labor Department office. According to Point, The Top
Sites of the Web at , America's Job Bank site is among the top five percent of sites being visited anywhere on the Internet.

South Dakota currently sends hunting license applications to interested parties via an online request at . New York state helps those interested in starting or expanding a business identify which permits are required through interactive forms. The Governor's Office of Regulatory Reform will send the permit applications to those who request them online at . While none of these services require a direct financial transaction, they all greatly reduce the time and effort required to get information or comply with government regulations.

Leveraging purchasing power has long been a tool governments use to buy goods and services at the best possible rate. Making bid information available online increases the number of companies made aware of the sales opportunity, which could increase competition and lower the price governments pay for goods or services.

Several state and local governments are beginning to take advantage of the Internet for this purpose and the results are impressive. According to Cary Paul Peck, supervisor of vendor relations for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the county has saved 7 percent on contracts awarded since they made contract notices available on a dial-up bulletin board.

Another site using the Web to deliver a creative service to a number of local governments is hosted by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). What makes this effort unique is that it is a consortium of local governments pooling their buying power by making their contract notices available together. The ABAG Contracts Exchange (ACE) is one service available from abagOnline, which can be reached at .

The abagOnline project organizes government information for nearly 100 city and nine county governments in the San Francisco Bay Area. The initiative began in January 1994 and is partially funded by a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) grant. ACE began in May 1995 and nearly 25 percent of the governments are participating.

According to Terry Bursztynsky, director of abagOnline services, the response was slow at first, but has steadily increased. "Local governments are not used to this sort of advertising. It will be a while before they realize actual dollars saved, but several governments have gotten inquiries and responses to contract notices from companies outside of the area."

Governments are not charged for this service, nor are companies charged for accessing the information. According to Bursztynsky, the next step will be toward online commerce. "The way we feel this service can be improved and the way to get greater participation is to put this information on a secure server to allow governments to receive bids online."

Increasing awareness is one of the major concerns for the ABAG staff. They are busy educating as many local government officials as possible in order to promote their service and increase participation. They currently offer free, simple home pages to many local governments. ABAG intends to offer secure chat lines for city managers, information systems managers and city planners. With over 3,500 hits per day and an average increase of 10 percent per month, the ABAG site should provide dividends to participating governments very soon.

Michael Nevins is a co-founder and director of State Technologies Inc., a nonprofit research group. State Technologies publishes the Web service Government On Line: .

E-mail address: .