Southern California's Orange County is large in both size and population. It's also pretty conservative, according to Gary L. Granville, county clerk and recorder. So when the county government decided to use the Internet to sell copies of birth, marriage and death certificates to residents, it turned to the private sector for help rather than attempt it in-house.

Since September, Orange County residents have been able to buy copies of vital records over the Internet using a new service developed and operated by Lockheed Martin IMS and Oracle Corp. The service, GovernLink, costs the county nothing. Residents can order a document online and pay for it with a credit card. The county collects its $15 fee, while Lockheed Martin exacts an additional $4 for each transaction.

"Our interest was in providing a convenient way for county citizens to obtain vital records, but not have to build the service ourselves," Granville said. The county government's offices are in congested downtown Santa Ana, and lack affordable parking, he noted.

"With the Internet service, citizens can avoid making a long trip and paying for expensive parking," he added. "That's good news for all the moms who need copies of their child's birth certificate for Little League [or] soccer."

It's also good news for the county's tight technology budget. The project would have received a low priority if the county had had to build it.

Privatizing Government Commerce

Transacting business over the Internet is barely under way in state and local government, but already a number of private-sector services are cropping up that offer "end-to-end" solutions. Most of these privatization efforts have been concentrated in the business-to-business field of electronic commerce. Internet supplier Commerce One Inc. has launched an electronic procurement service for Los Angeles County that handles much of the work related to online ordering. Commerce One's services include a dedicated Web site on a remote server that operates on MCI's Internet backbone. The site runs the suppliers' catalogs, which county workers use to order parts and products.

Other private firms have offered similar solutions to government purchasing bureaus. There's usually no up-front charge for the service. The solution-providers collect fees based on sliding scales relating to the value of the transactions.

GovernLink is the first service aimed at government interaction with the consumer market, although it's not limited to those sorts of transactions.

"GovernLink is about electronic government for citizens and businesses that want to interact with government and conduct business transactions," said Holli Ploog, a senior vice president at Lockheed Martin. "It's a fully outsourced service with no up-front cost. We support the software, run the operation and receive compensation from a convenience fee."

So far, Lockheed Martin is offering GovernLink to its existing customers. But the long-term plan is to provide a national service that anyone can use to transact business with any state or local government. GovernLink's Web site already lists all 50 states.

The fact that local governments have shown the most interest so far in outsourcing electronic commerce comes as no surprise. Due to their limited resources, skills and infrastructure, counties and municipalities are likelier than state and federal agencies to outsource such a need.

"I think there will be more of this type of activity in the months to come, especially in the area of citizen services," said Gary Lambert, deputy purchasing agent for Massachusetts and a member of the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council. "The question that remains to be answered is how many citizens will find it comfortable to deal with government in this way."

Orange County's Granville

reported that the county was processing about 100 transactions per day within a month of the service's Sept. 14 debut. Each electronic order receives priority handling and is mailed out the same day.

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor