a bevy of 800 numbers with IM interfaces. One issue is IM networks don't interoperate, so AOL IM users can't talk to MSN Messenger users. Osterman said he sees interoperability between IM networks happening within the next two years.

Governments have a variety of vendors to choose from. Replacing an 800 number with an IM interface can be accomplished through a particular agency's Web site, said FaceTime's Dean.

"We have the ability to put a 1-800 number into our IM platform," Dean said. "So if a constituent visits a DMV site, that constituent could click on an icon enabled by our technology that said, 'Talk to a customer service representative.' It doesn't matter which customer service representative is available now, we've got all of the routing and queuing capabilities to let anybody who goes to the DMV site speak with any available customer service rep over an IM client."

The company also developed an IM Presence Manager, which can help governments with customer service.

"We can insert and enable any forms and Web pages with presence," Dean said. "We can embed presence directly into a PDF form, so if a constituent is online and reviewing a PDF form on a Web page, he or she can click on a button embedded into the form that says, 'I have a question.'

"That would route that real-time IM request to an available customer service representative," he continued. "We think that notion of aggregating presence and availability of people in government agencies into Web forms, workflows and processes on the Web is very interesting. We can embed all of this directly into every single form and every single page and have it be contextually appropriate."

Building the Business Case

To some CIOs, IM doesn't have sufficient bona fides to justify use in government.

Montana is one state that has blocked IM use both as an internal communications tool and an external communications tool, said state CIO Brian Wolf.

"The use of IM as a purely internal tool is more of a policy decision states or corporate enterprises would have to make based on whether there is a role or specific business need IM meets that can't be met through the telephone or e-mail," Wolf said. "I haven't necessarily seen, or have had brought to me, a compelling business case to use IM."

Wolf cited public records concerns as another aspect of IM use that makes him pause, especially because no record of the IM conversation remains once the IM client is closed -- unless a jurisdiction purchases an enterprise-grade IM platform from a company such as AOL or IBM.

Finally, he said, the security problems presented by consumer-grade IM clients -- either through a direct Internet connection or file-sharing capabilities -- offer too many possible holes for viruses or worms.

"From a government perspective, I can't tell you it is not something we'll eventually do," he said. "I can tell you we'll be looking at it. We will try to understand its applicability. We'll take a hard look at user needs. It's one of those things we'll do more analysis of as time goes on.

"But honestly," Wolf added, "we haven't had people pounding on our doors saying, 'We need IM functionality, both on an external and internal basis.'"

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor