little bit of in the past, is conducted focus groups with citizens to determine whether they are satisfied with the service they are getting," Poe said. "As we go to more online services, that kind of assessment will probably expand."

Culture Shock

Implementing the type of ROI and TCO measurements contemplated by Missouri and Wisconsin likely will demand significant adjustment from government executives. Wethington said agency managers usually aren't accustomed to tracking these issues.

"If you're managing toward the bottom line, that means you've got to do some pretty different things in determining cost and assigning monetary value," he said. "That's a whole different environment; we typically don't think in those terms."

The magnitude of that transformation became evident when Wethington attempted to get MoVAP ready for use in Missouri's 2003 fiscal year, which starts in July. "As we got into the models and the methodology, it became far more complex, and quite honestly this is a somewhat of a culture change for people who deal in information technology," he said.

Now, he doesn't anticipate using the plan in earnest until fiscal 2004. However, Missouri already is applying MoVAP's TCO assessment tools to statewide HIPAA compliance efforts. Wethington also expects to use MoVAP on upcoming projects for online business registration, auto registration renewal and professional licensing.

O'Donnell acknowledged that it's neither easy nor quick for government jurisdictions to assess current cost structures and devise meaningful ROI measures.

"You really have to ask yourself some difficult questions -- as a state, as an agency head and as part of a committee," O'Donnell said. "It takes some creativity and paradigm shifting to really get down to what an ROI might be. You've got to be willing to confront that."

Both Missouri and Wisconsin say they're trying to fashion data-collection processes that avoid unneeded complexity.

"In the past, we've had a return on investment, cost/benefit analysis methodology. The issue was that it was viewed more as just red tape. It wasn't a critical-thinking analysis," Meyer said. "So we'll be looking at this in a collaborative fashion to make sure we're not doing something that's just an additional bureaucratic step."

The Payoff

Despite the difficulties, states implementing TCO/ROI programs expect to reap huge benefits. Not only do these techniques give jurisdictions a means to justify continuing e-government investments, they also yield superior systems, according to Wethington.
"As you insert metrics into any process, I think it improves that process," he said. "That ultimately leads to better projects and better results."

Indeed, paying attention to ROI throughout a project's lifecycle -- from planning, to funding, to implementation, to operation -- often results in the sorts of enterprise IT systems that help jurisdictions avoid costs long after the project is complete, O'Donnell contended.

For example, this sort of analysis shows the benefit of enterprise payment engines that handle monetary transactions for multiple online services, she said. Although the enterprise technology may cost more to implement than a single-agency solution, it becomes the more cost-effective alternative as agencies throughout the state plug in.

Up-front planning required by ROI programs also results in IT infrastructures that accommodate new e-government functions more easily and inexpensively. "If you've thought it through at the front end, then you've built a scalable, flexible architecture to service the needs of the state," O'Donnell said. "All you have to worry about is the incremental functionality for the applications."

And, perhaps most importantly, ROI programs ultimately equip government officials to show concrete results from e-government spending.

"I think you need to demonstrate that you are either saving money or you are improving the quality of life for citizens," said Wethington. "It has to be something that you can actually quantify, and you've got to do it in a manner that allows you to be consistent."

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.