Let's face it. Marketing is an alien concept in the public sector. State and local governments do many things, but finding new markets for upgraded services isn't one of them. Part of the problem is that the government's customer base or "market" is, for the most part, simply "the taxpayer," not the small-business market, the upper middle-class market, or the minority-women's market. Traditional marketing techniques, such as segmentation, don't always apply.

Another problem is that marketing costs money and doesn't always pay back. Remember the Edsel? Ford thought lots of marketing could turn reluctant buyers into eager buyers. It didn't work, and the Edsel has become a symbol of marketing hubris.

Not surprisingly, government agencies aren't comfortable with the idea of spending tax dollars on market research, and rightly so. Should the press get wind of a government agency investing thousands of dollars on an elaborate marketing campaign, complete with advertising, to sell some newfangled, possibly dubious, and definitely high-risk venture, such as an Internet corporate tax-filing service, media types would have a field day. Worse, taxpayers would be up in arms.

Marketing Attempts

In the 1980s, when urban jobs were fleeing to the suburbs in record numbers, cities, as part of their effort to rescue ailing downtown districts, turned to marketing as a way of bolstering their image and economy. A large number of localities tried to master the science of marketing in an attempt to sell their city to potential businesses and tourists. Books were written on how cities should market themselves, and officials attended seminar after seminar. Despite the best of efforts, many of these local-government marketing programs produced more flops than hits.

In 1998, the issue is electronic service delivery and electronic commerce. State and local governments believe services driven by technology can serve many taxpayers and businesses more efficiently than by traditional means and, at the same time, save tax dollars. So far, the results have been mixed.

In Texas, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) thought that, by converting certain public filings into an electronic format, customers would be more than willing to pay for the new "value-added" service. The PUC even made it possible to use credit cards. The only problem was that very little value was added. The process was still the same, only electronic now, and the PUC didn't bother to find out exactly what its customers really wanted. To no one's surprise, the new service did poorly.

Conversely, in Boston and Chicago, both cities took the time to figure out what was needed to boost the compliance rate for parking-ticket fines. In Boston, an easy-to-use voice response system, available around the clock, coupled with a credit-card payment option, did the trick. In Chicago, it meant setting up payment bureaus out in the neighborhoods, away from the congested downtown business district. In both cases, city government turned around people's attitudes using a well-conceived service.

The next level in electronic service that governments hope to reach is Internet commerce. Allow transactions -- both financial and nonfinancial -- to take place on the still-expanding public Internet Protocol network, and the hope is that all sorts of synergies can occur. Tax forms can be filed, bids for services and products can be accepted, permit applications can be processed, all electronically.

Consumers Are the Answer

How do you market these kinds of services to taxpayers? Some experts believe little can occur until there is a national digital-signature infrastructure to bolster trust in the free-wheeling Internet. But an increasing number of success stories in the private sector -- from Amazon Books to Dell Computers -- tell government that the trust is already there; it's just a matter of marketing, if you want to succeed.

Those who know what makes electronic commerce tick, such as Patricia Seybold,