June 2, 2006 By Adam Stone
The problem lies in the follow-up. All those phone calls, letters, e-mails and faxes may be full of valuable information, but traditional filing systems made it hard to capture and use.
Now the House is taking a page from the private sector, implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) system that proponents say will allow lawmakers to better manage constituent communications and ultimately better serve the people who sent them to Jefferson City in the first place.
"We, the House, are always looking for ways to improve performance and work more effectively with our constituents. This was the right application and the right time," said Rich Beckwith, director of information systems for the Missouri House of Representatives.
In December 2005, systems vendor Quilogy installed a customer-service module of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0 at the House of Representatives. Beta testing included about 12 people, followed by a rollout to 100 users. This year the deployment should extend to encompass the offices of about 350 users, including legislators, administrators and staff, once the House's IT staff has completed training for potential users.
Out the Window
Even before the present effort, legislators could access CRM-type software to coordinate contacts with constituents. But that software was hardly state-of-the-art.
"Our previous constituent management software was developed in-house and has undergone several major revisions and platform changes over the years," Beckwith explained. "It was highly customized and reliable, but lacked a Web interface and integration with the software tools we use daily, such as Word, Excel and Outlook."
Analysts see this as a common problem among legislatures and other branches of government. Legacy systems are kept alive, and new functions are grafted onto them to grab new capabilities without undergoing a major overhaul.
"You're putting lipstick on a pig," said John Kost, managing vice president at Gartner Research, noting that, eventually, those older systems will have to be replaced.
In this case, the replacement came at the private sector's urging.
"Microsoft approached the Missouri House of Representatives with the concept and offered to implement a pilot project in our leadership offices," Beckwith said.
IT planners said they gave the proposal a serious look because the product runs as part of Outlook. It made sense that the learning curve on using the software would be abbreviated. Planners also liked the price of the Microsoft offering, Beckwith said, because full implementation is expected to cost $200,000.
In addition, the Microsoft product took one giant leap beyond the in-house product -- it's built on Web services and data is made available via a secure Web connection. This is a boon to legislators and their staffs, who gain access to constituent information and other data through any Web connection.
Coping With Overload
Observers say legislators are likely looking to CRM to help cope with an influx of communications.
The rising popularity of e-mail, for one, is a huge factor, said Pam Greenberg, program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures. In an era of instantaneous communications, voters are more likely to fire off missives to their representatives, leaving those representatives paddling to stay afloat, she said.
"They are looking for ways to keep up with constituents, and they are trying to use technology to be more efficient in the way they are responding to constituents," Greenberg said.
CRM categorizes messages, making it relatively easy to sort through correspondence based on defined criteria.
"Legislators want to know who is communicating with them, and the value of that individual -- whether that individual is likely to participate in a fundraising event or is attached to some grass-roots lobbying organization," said Jill Dych
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