Government Web portals have come a long way since the early 1990s, when the main objective of the public sector's first foray on the Internet was posting bare-bones text, such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
The latest iteration of the Virginia.gov home page is a testament to the technological progress of the past 15 years. It's a veritable playground for Web 2.0 connoisseurs: Links to podcasts, live help chat, really simple syndication (RSS) feeds and YouTube videos are featured prominently in an on-screen menu. It also offers alerts, traffic updates, weather conditions and a Flash menu of most popular online services, which include everything from fishing licenses to a dangerous dog registry.
It's a current-gen portal that feels very much "next-gen."
On these merits, the Center for Digital Government awarded Virginia first place in the state portal category in the 2008 Best of the Web Awards. But Virginia Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra isn't resting on the praise. He's already thinking up ideas for Virginia's next-generation portal, which he says will be designed for the growing use of mobile devices, instead of PCs.
"What we're seeing in the marketplace is that people are creating completely new concepts, leveraging the mobile platform like no place on earth in a PC world," Chopra said. "So it almost makes a new way of thinking. I haven't yet figured out the best way to organize around mobility, but that's next on my list."
That's Chopra's vision, but many other ideas are floating around about what the next-generation of Web portals will look like and what technologies will emerge. Innovation is coming soon: Texas, Georgia, New York state and New Jersey are procuring new Web portals, with rollout expected in 2009 or 2010. California is also exploring an overhaul.
IT officials typically are mum about what they want from a next-gen portal when they're in the middle of an ongoing RFP process. Nevertheless, nuggets of insight can be gleaned from the proposal documents and "vision statements" that are published prior to picking a vendor. For instance, the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) outlined in a comprehensive "vision document" the technologies it expects to be included in the next version of TexasOnline, www.texasonline.com, which will be unveiled in as soon as 2009.
"Web widgets, also known as gadgets and portlets, will be the main way users can personalize content on TexasOnline," according to the document. "Web widgets are pluggable, user-interface components displayed in a personalized dashboard. Content from multiple sources is streamed onto one location, where the user can get a snapshot of all interested information and services in a single view. Common Web widgets include e-mail, news feeds, discussion forums and weather reports."
The portal could also include features such as federated identity management, which shares user information among numerous agencies; a content management system that would enable quicker development of e-services; and Web tools, like RSS and mash-ups that incorporate online geographic maps.
TexasOnline might also expand upon the transactional fees that make the portal self-funded, according to the DIR document. Since its inception, TexasOnline has processed more than $6 billion in state and local revenue via an estimated 80 million financial transactions.
"I think the [portal's] mission has to be redefined to providing services that most state and local governments can provide where a citizen can utilize them every day and every week," said Gary Miglicco, vice president of public services for BearingPoint, the company that currently operates TexasOnline and has re-bid for the contract. That increased traffic could be driven, at least in part, by offerings like social networking, he said.
Other states - namely New York and Georgia - recognize the appeal of Web 2.0, but appear to be focusing more on simplifying business processes. "When
you think of being green - the whole green initiative - we want to make it easier for the constituents to not have to leave their home to do simple transactions," said Sharon Cates-Williams, the New York state deputy CIO for IT delivery services. The state currently offers 450 types of online transactions and hopes to improve forms and documents it makes available to businesses and citizens. The New York redesign bid winner will have to fulfill this mission relatively cheaply; the project is capped by a $500,000 one-time appropriation.
Meanwhile, Georgia is similarly looking to improve its Web 2.0 presence and government-to-business service through its Georgia Portal Transformation project. The problem is that budget shortfalls are everywhere, according to Steve Nichols, chief technology officer of the Georgia Technology Authority. "A challenge is that it's a feast-or-famine environment. Our customer base is the rest of state government - they're all getting appropriation tied back to our revenue. This year, we're looking at at least 6 percent budget cuts," Nichols said.
Optimizing 2.0 Tools
These funding challenges are relevant because new mash-ups and Web 2.0 applications are coming to market with increasing frequency, so governments are expected to offer their services on more and more content channels. To name a few examples, public officials, such as Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, are posting videos to YouTube. The Portland (Ore.) Police Department is logging a page on Twitter with updates on crimes and safety hazards (in no more than 140 characters apiece), and municipalities are finding avenues for two-way communication with citizens (e.g., Fairfax County, Va., is asking the public to go online and suggest solutions for a projected $400 million budget deficit for fiscal 2010).
A Web portal can be the gateway to these kinds of content, and fortunately many Web 2.0 applications are inexpensive to build. But is all this stuff actually adding enough value to make it worthwhile to the bottom line? John Miri, a fellow with the Center for Digital Government and a former director of e-government and Web services for Texas, said the next generation of Web portals must first optimize the current Web 2.0 tools before looking to the future.
"Most people know they want to use 2.0 technology - they know what YouTube and Flickr are - but they aren't sure how they're going to apply it to government because the link between Web 2.0 and government isn't readily apparent," Miri said. Therefore, some of the Web 2.0 "bells and whistles" that governments are pursuing for their portals inevitably will be underutilized, Miri said.
The key to mining value from Web 2.0 is to tie those tools into core services, he said. That's because the average visitor to a Web portal only visits five to 10 times each year, according to Miri, for events like getting married, moving to a state, starting a business, obtaining social services or buying a car.
Miri cited RSS feeds as one technology that in many cases isn't being used to its full potential. "The surprising thing has been that many states haven't applied it in the obvious area, which is that RSS is great for publishing news information," he said. Some states, he said, use RSS for notification of expiration of licenses - the kind of purposes RSS isn't well suited for. Miri said many governors' offices use RSS effectively, but coverage is redundant because traditional media outlets cover them heavily anyway.
Count on seeing a give and take among local and state IT shops in defining the next batch of must-have features for next-gen Web portals. "There's at least as much innovation at the city, county and school district level as there is at the state level," Miri said.
For example, Oakland County, Mich. - 2008 first-place finisher in the county portal category of the Best of
the Web Awards - is experimenting with moderated blogs and mash-ups using GIS and three-dimensional orthophotography at www.oakgov.com. "What does Web 3.0 look like for us? We've started looking at, 'What are the Generation Y people going to be looking for when they start consuming from us?'" said Phil Bertolini, Oakland County deputy executive and CIO. These needs might include mobile applications integrated within the Web portal, user-generated content, expanded access to social networking and even virtual worlds such as Second Life.
"I've been amazed with the whole phenomena of Second Life," Bertolini said. "People are out there using that type of technology, creating these personas and moving around this virtual world. Now you find that there are companies out there starting to advertise for jobs. There are governments that are going to have to provide services in that world."
For now, it's about small steps rather than avatars in Oakland County. Bertolini said he expects next-gen Web portals to be fertile ground for more collaborative and regional projects. In one example, the county helped design a "blogin' café" during the 2008 Arts, Beats & Eats festival in Pontiac, Mich. Thousands of attendees blogged at the event on laptops, and the updates were posted on the Web site of the Detroit Free Press newspaper. In another example, Oakland County spearheaded a program in which the county maintains a crime watch database and publishes it for 61 local communities that build their own crime report maps and post them on their own portals.
The vendors that design and operate government portals also will have a say in the next-gen content.
"I don't think we have even come close to scratching the surface of what the next generation of Web technologies will be," said Harry Herington, CEO of NIC Inc., which manages the Web portals of 21 states and makes profits through transaction fees completed via the portals. "[The current Web 2.0] generation is making people understand that when interacting with a particular entity, it doesn't have to come from that particular entity - that's the power of mash-ups."
Herington said what comes after Web 2.0 ultimately will make new modes of governance possible, including what he calls "invisible government," or i-government.
Herington foresees that the next-gen government portal will allow customers who buy new cars to avoid a visit to the local department of motor vehicles (DMV) office. How would it work? Using some kind of citizen identity "passport," a 15-minute, business-to-government transaction would alert the DMV that a car has been purchased. In turn, the DMV would send all the paperwork to the car dealership, and the customer could drive off the car lot with all fees paid and new license plates in hand. It should be a painless process, Herington said. "In the back of your mind, you'll know you're doing this and it's legally done." Therefore, the transaction would be "invisible" government.
One Portal, One World
The concept of a "one-stop shop" for government services via the Web portal has gained traction for years, though it's sometimes articulated in a different language. Chopra said this impetus for a one-stop experience will only increase in Virginia and other governments that want to revamp their portals.
"Eventually if I say to you, 'I'm going to join a Facebook community around fishermen in Virginia,' I know by virtual connection to the group that you need a fishing license from the Department of Game and Fisheries or you might need a tow license if you wanted to put a boat on your truck trailer. The point is, the one-stop structure is basically organizing government around key constituencies or service needs," Chopra said.
Chopra and Bertolini agree that the first step to building that one-stop framework is making
as many forms and documents available online as possible, whether they are for fishing licenses, taxes or permits. In fact, Oakland County estimates that its 1.2 million citizens will download 2 million forms in 2008 - 1 million more forms than a year ago.
The next step to achieving the one-stop experience is making government Web portals functional and useful anytime and anywhere - on mobile devices. Chopra said this could be the horizon of the next-gen portal. He's asking himself how the availability of a GIS location code in mobile devices will change the way citizens interact with government. "Should I be able to say, 'I'm at this street corner. I want to find the nearest DMV'? Or 'I want to report a health violation. What is the easiest way? I'm at this restaurant right now. Locate this restaurant, and I want to upload a photograph that this particular restaurant has a rat.'" It's this potential that has Chopra thinking about how mobility will affect Web site design.
No matter what the future holds, Chopra said it's important for IT shops to foster a "culture of continual improvement" for their Web space, where changes are made in months instead of years. Otherwise, governments will surely be caught off guard by the next hot technology - the new YouTube or Facebook. Today's cutting-edge, next-gen portal will inevitably become tomorrow's dinosaur. Bertolini agrees.
"If you don't evolve your Web portal continually," Bertolini said, "then you will be looking at that next-gen again and you will have to rework everything you have if you're not evolving with the next technology as it comes along."