Main Street Portals

Many smaller jurisdictions have lacked the time, money and staff needed to build an online presence. That situation is likely to change as new strategies hit Main Street.

by News Staff / August 31, 2001
From Hayfork to Hartford, most elected officials want a Web presence for their town, city, county or village. Of course its a lot harder to put together and maintain an effective Web site with a budget that leans toward the Hayfork end of the scale. "What we find in Minnesota is that many small cities dont have a lot of staff people," said Karen Anderson, mayor of Minnetonka, Minn., and first vice president of the National League of Cities (NLC). "Theyre lucky if they have a staff person whos technologically adept, who can come into city hall and help get things going."

As a result, many small localities throughout the country have either gone without an online presence or relied on outside designers -- which, according to Anderson, can sometimes be worse than nothing. "If you do it externally and hire someone flying through town, then youre stuck with that information for a long time."

Fortunately, municipalities should have an easier go at Web site construction by the end of 2001. A number of companies are rolling out electronic government strategies that should help bring electronic government to smaller jurisdictions.

Reaching Out to the Little Guy
For the past 10 years, the National Information Consortium (NIC) has created e-government portals primarily for states and high-traffic local governments. Typically, NIC would front the start-up and development costs for the jurisdictions portal and then collect a convenience fee on an array of online transactions to recoup costs. But the business model didnt make sense for smaller jurisdictions with less traffic.

However, the company is now piloting a condensed e-government platform - with a core configuration of servers, firewalls and other hardware that can be customized with a variety of software - that could be affordable for smaller jurisdictions. "We can do everything from property tax applications, permitting and licensing all the way down to basic press release information, calendar management and live webcasting of city council meetings," said Christopher Neff, NICs senior director of marketing and communications.

The core configuration of this "portal in a box" was tested last spring in Tampa, Fla., and Dallas County, Texas. Although those jurisdictions may not be small, theyve proven ideal for testing the strength of the core configuration and how well it meshes with the applications.

"[Tampa] had what I would call an informative Web site -- no e-commerce or interactivity," said Mukesh Patel, general manager of Florida Local Interactive, an NIC subsidiary. "We took that as a starting point, then added some e-commerce applications," such as a shopping cart for the Tampa Museum of Art. "The latest application that went live allows online requests of accident reports and incident reports."

As for the 3,000 pages of content that existed on Tampas old site, Patel gave the citys Web content management team new templates to recreate the sites design and improve navigation through it. "Overnight, it gave the Tampa site a completely new look and feel," said Patel.

"[The] partnership has been very, very productive," says John Hennessey, chief information officer for Dallas County. "Were very pleased with their performance and the new Web site. Weve come up with two applications for citizens so they can pay property taxes and renew licenses online, and were looking to provide more services to our citizens just as soon as we can bring the applications up."

The package comes with a Windows-based installation wizard that simplifies and automates set-up. "In a smaller municipality, you would use the wizard from scratch to not only define your logo and headers, but youd use it to start entering your content as well," said Patel. Whats more, he explained, "the basic software comes with an e-commerce engine that controls online transactions and includes tools that report which departments are doing which transactions, along with credit card authorization and verification."

What will governments need to provide? "Currently, we provide the actual hosting services, [but] our assumption is that most of the government partners that request servers will be hosting their own sites and already have the telecommunications infrastructure set up," said Neff.

"The software and hardware combinations that weve selected can pretty much automate the whole process," said Les Connell, director of development at Texas Local Interactive, a Texas-based NIC subsidiary thats overseeing the Dallas County pilot. "But while you wont necessarily need a programmer on staff, you will have to have someone who makes sure the backups happen -- someone who understands how the database works so that you can run reports."

A Site for All, Come Big or Small
A recent partnership between the National League of Cities (NLC) and IBM will help even the smallest of municipalities create Web sites and become fully interactive e-government players.

In February 2000, NLC began researching how it could best develop an e-government program for its 1,700+ member cities, and selected IBM as a partner. "We knew IBM would be there next year," said Mark Shapiro, NLCs manager of Internet services. "Some of these dot-coms we spoke with have already disappeared."

As a first step toward what theyre now calling "Total-e Government," IBM and NLC developed an application for creating Web pages that requires little more from the user than Web access and the ability to cut and paste. "Im trying to design this for the person who on Monday is the city administrator, on Tuesday is the dogcatcher, and on Wednesday is the crossing guard," said Jake Moore, a senior project manager with IBM Global Services.

This Web-based application comes with 18 pre-populated templates to create pages for the fire and police departments, the city council, a city events calendar and more. To create pages, which are stored on IBM servers, users visit the Web site of their state municipal league, access their account with a username and password, and paste or type in the appropriate information. "You dont have to know any HTML or layout," said Shapiro. "[The application] does all the coding and placement." Users can create as many pages as they want, and they can even design pages on their own if they want to forgo the templates.

In April 2001, state municipal leagues in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, volunteered to test the Web page creation application in three to five member cities. The initial Total-e Government package is to offer two interactive applications that were scheduled to be pilot tested before the August launch date. One is a human resources application that will enable cities to post job descriptions and take resumes online.

The second application will serve as an action center that will allow citizens to direct comments and complaints to the appropriate government personnel. "If I have a tree down across the street, I would have no idea in my town of Bellevue, Neb., who Id call," said Moore. "Here, well provide drop-down windows that list situations like fallen tree and pothole." Choosing one of these situations brings up a preaddressed e-mail message; all the user has to do is type in where the problem occurred and click "Send."

IBM plans to release three to four new applications each quarter. Shapiro believes that by October 2001, for example, a financial transaction application will allow citizens to pay parking tickets and other fees online.

Pricing for Total-e Government is still being determined, but it will be subscription-based, with municipalities paying for only those applications they want. Because IBM would prefer to avoid dealing with 18,000 cities and towns individually, Total-e Government will be offered through the state municipal leagues. NLC and IBM will train individuals at each state league, who will in turn train the city and town personnel as they sign up.

"So far its been very positive," said Shapiro. "Weve seen from the pilot cities that a town clerk of a town of 1,000 people can sit down and within an hour create a basic town Web page and feel comfortable with maintaining it."

Heather Roberts, manager of information services for the Iowa League of Cities, said that in the three cities shes trained so far the novice webmasters have been very enthusiastic. "Before, when you were putting up a Web site, you could get so wrapped up in the technical aspect of it that you forgot about [creating] the information," she said. "This product allows them to jump straight to that important part: figuring out what kind of information to give citizens and how to organize it."

Of the eight pilot cities that shes been training, Bobbye Vechik, pilot project manager of the Arkansas Municipal League, said, "They have enjoyed the ease of use [with the Web site builder] thats enabled them to have much more control locally in creating and maintaining the sites and not having to have outside sources do that."