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Is E-Gov Really Delivering?

It didn’t evolve as pioneers planned, but government’s move to digital has been revolutionary.

by / November 3, 2014
Steve Kolodney, Former Washington CIO

Ask a half-dozen people about the origins of e-government and you’ll likely get a half-dozen different answers. Some point to Y2K — the Millennium Bug — as a defining moment; if you were in federal government, it was the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 that set the e-government wheels in motion inside the Beltway; if you were in local government it was the small club of cities that built their own websites in the mid-1990s with the support of Public Technology Inc., the technical arm of the National League of Cities, the International City/County Management Association and the National Association of Counties; or, if you happened to live in Silicon Valley at the time, it was a bookstore in Palo Alto that launched a revolution.

“For me the origins of electronic commerce and e-government have their roots in a place in Palo Alto called the Future Fantasy Bookstore,” said P.K. Agarwal, who was the president of NASCIO at the time (then known as NASIRE or the National Association of State Information Resource Executives). “It was a science fiction bookstore and they were the first ones to put their book catalog online.”

Agarwal, who worked with IT in state government for many years, most recently as California’s chief technology officer during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, said the bookstore originally went online to serve existing customers, but soon had orders coming in from around the globe. It was a pivotal moment, according to Agarwal, who suggested to his colleagues that government ought to consider doing something similar for how it purchases goods and services. “From my narrow vision at that time, e-government was actually e-procurement,” he said.

P.K. Agarwal originally saw e-government as a form of e-procurement.

As Agarwal explained, this was the first of a multistage evolution in e-government at the state level. Already, government had begun to publish information online and, after the Y2K hiccup, began moving toward interacting with constituents and businesses and setting up the first transactional services online. Today, e-government is a given. Every state and nearly all localities have websites that offer services that can be done online instead of in line.

“E-government is an enormous success story,” said Steve Kolodney, the former CIO of Washington state. “There has been an explosion in the number of great examples of improved service delivery.” On a broader scale, you can include integrated workflow and processes that have made government more efficient, more channels for citizens to communicate and engage with government and better governance overall.

But there have been shortfalls too. Adoption rates vary for online services and remain low for some services, despite early expectations that may have proven too optimistic. State and local governments have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in e-government initiatives over the past 15 years, yet it can be hard to find quantifiable data that supports the cost savings they projected from the technology. “Governments are good at projecting savings, but never at harvesting them,” said Carolyn Purcell, the former CIO of Texas. “I think e-government should have been a more profitable engagement.”

States and localities also face challenges with their e-government strategies. How they cope with them could spell the difference between new opportunities or stagnation when it comes to e-government. For the first time, more Americans used a mobile device than a PC to access the Internet, according to the research firm Enders Analysis. A growing number of states and localities are opening up data sets, allowing more collaboration with the private sector and greater transparency. The result could be new online services, but in a way that is far different from the traditional e-gov model. How government handles these new trends could set the stage for e-government for the rest of the decade.

In the beginning there was electronic commerce. Before the World Wide Web, people in government saw technology and the emerging Internet as the means to speed high-volume, high-value transactions between government and its business partners. These interactions included tax filing and payments, customs information, student loan data and financial notices. The tools for making this happen included electronic funds transfer and electronic data interchange.

What became immediately apparent, however, was the need for security, especially if the transactions took place across the open Internet rather than within proprietary networks, which were expensive. To help make all this happen, a group of state IT executives created the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council to figure out what technologies and policies were likeliest to succeed. The goal was to create model agreements and best practices that could be adopted on a national scale.

“There were a number of priorities happening at that time, but one of them was PKI [public key infrastructure],” said Purcell. “It was a recognition that in order to do electronic commerce, we would need some sort of security to protect important information to transact between government and business.”

But some businesses couldn’t wait for the methodical but slow wheels of government to fashion the rules and guidelines for e-commerce. In 1992, Kansas signed an agreement with the Kansas Information Consortium, a startup company dedicated to making e-government happen. The vision was to let the private sector do the heavy lifting of creating a working system so that businesses (primarily law firms at the time) could exchange legal information, explained Brad Bradley, one of the founders of what is now the National Information Consortium (NIC). The idea was that a private tech firm would build the infrastructure necessary for e-commerce, install and run it for government, which would oversee the operation. To finance the operation, it used what NIC calls the “self-funding” model: A portion of the fees paid by businesses willing to use the electronic service would cover expenses.

“The origins of e-government really started as a business operation,” said Harry Herington, CEO of NIC. “It wasn’t until PCs became more affordable and the Web emerged that government-to-citizen e-government emerged.”

Another e-gov trigger was the Millennium Bug known as Y2K. In order to avoid having the software glitch shut down vital mainframe computers at 12:01 a.m., all levels of government spent an inordinate amount of time (and money) inventorying and upgrading their systems and networks, which opened the door to new technologies, according to Kolodney. “Y2K triggered a pent-up demand for new IT initiatives,” he said.

The combination of low-cost PCs entering the homes and businesses of Americans, coupled with the rapid rise of the Web and a burst of new ideas around technology, together with the expanding role of the government CIO, led to a wave of activity that gave shape to e-government as we know it today. States and local governments, whether on their own or with private-sector partners, like NIC, BearingPoint and other firms, began building portals to display searchable information and to offer a few core transactional services. “The portal became a wonderful way to show off what a state did with its taxpayer dollars,” said Kolodney. “It quickly became apparent that the function of the IT department was to provide new avenues to deliver services.”

In 2002, the federal government became a major player in the movement when Congress passed the E-Government Act. “It put into stone the whole idea of a Web-enabled government,” said Mark Forman, who is recognized as the first federal CIO. “The vision was to get an order of magnitude in improving government’s value to citizens. It was about shrinking the cycle time for government to make decisions.”

Today, e-gov is no longer a vision, but a given. Virtually every government entity has a website and most also offer some kind of transactional service, so that citizens and businesses can interact online, whether it’s filing paperwork or paying a fee or tax. E-government has matured in a number of directions: government-to-citizen, government-to-business and government-to-government. It operates through a multitude of channels, with interactions on mobile devices rising rapidly.

This year, Wisconsin updated its website for the first time in 10 years. On the customer service side, the state has launched 21 online services, including five mobile applications. With NIC as its partner, the state estimates that it will reap $9 million in savings and value annually. And just as the first generation of e-government triggered a wave of activity that included both online services and IT improvements, Wisconsin has taken the opportunity to overhaul major internal management systems that handle accounting, budgeting, human resources, payroll and procurement.

To get there, however, the state had to set up a robust governance structure and overhaul its security, disaster recovery and broadband infrastructure, according to Chris Schoenherr, deputy secretary for the Department of Administration. Echoing the vision from the early days, Schoenherr spoke of the state’s renewed e-government initiatives as fulfilling “customer expectations” and “meeting the customer where they are.” In other words, adjusting to their needs rather than expecting them to adjust to the government way of doing business.

Wisconsin’s most popular mobile e-government service is its hunting and fishing application. That wouldn’t surprise NIC’s Herington, who said recreational and DMV-related applications are among the most popular services in the 29 states that NIC serves. But the pendulum has shifted since the early days of e-government. “When the Web was first introduced, 80 percent of the activity involved government-to-citizen activity,” he said. But there’s a limit to how many times citizens need to interact with government. As a result, business transactions, such as UCC filings and one-stop business startup services, now dominate. “Regulating businesses has become so complicated today,” said Herington, that it’s driving the need for more government-to-business applications.

The shift also reflects a more realistic set of expectations when it comes to citizen-centric e-government. “I think e-government has fallen short in adoption,” Agarwal said. “The percentage of people who go online is still too low.” Part of the problem could be the uneven activity of e-government. Only one-third of states offer online license renewals, according to the Center for Digital Government (which is run by Government Technology’s parent company e.Republic). California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which has had an online presence for years, only processes 25 percent of vehicle registration renewals via the Internet.

The cost savings generated by e-government still remain somewhat a mystery. Direct cost savings, when published, tend to be either modest or are couched in terms such as “value to customer” or “cost avoidance,” which tend to be squishy. But don’t blame the CIO for overselling e-government as a cost-cutter, explained Kolodney. “Our job was to sell the idea, demonstrate the functionality,” he said. “But agencies didn’t want to reduce headcount because it wasn’t clear to them how e-gov would work.” In other words, e-government presented a radical shift in how government could operate, but few leaders were willing to follow through and overhaul government itself.

When the United Nations released its 2014 e-government survey, the U.S., a perennial leader in the field, had dropped to seventh place in international ranking, while other countries, most notably, Singapore, Korea and Australia, had shot up to the top. It’s not clear why the U.S. has struggled to maintain its lead in recent years. But the report emphasized that e-government is no longer just about service delivery, but must be a catalyst for change as well. At the same time, government itself needs to be more integrated, proactive, transparent and accountable.

Utah Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher follows these trends closely. He also evaluates Gartner’s annual hype cycle to better understand which technologies are maturing and ready for adoption. He holds yearly meetings to better understand how technology and e-government can address the needs of the state’s citizens and businesses. At the same time, IT has to align with Gov. Gary Herbert’s goals that impact education, jobs, energy and self-determination.
Dave Fletcher, CTO, Utah

Utah isn’t resting on its e-government laurels, Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher holds annual meetings to better understand how the state’s online presence can address needs.

Making sure technology helps the mission of the state’s agencies align with the governor’s goals is a large task, according to Fletcher, but e-government can help make that happen. It’s not just in the numbers — the state has 1,100 services online and more to come — but it’s about changing government into an effective and efficient service; it’s about meeting heightened expectations; and it’s about pushing the envelope when it comes to integration and collaboration, said Fletcher.

To that end, Utah has a mobile-first strategy for its e-gov services now (the state is a partner with NIC). Fletcher said open data will play an increasingly big role for the state. “There are lots of opportunities in that space, lots of new platforms.” Utah is also taking advantage of the cloud to leverage agile development of new applications, and it has enhanced information integration, eliminating siloed data. “We’re out of the mainframe business,” Fletcher said.

All this puts Utah in a strong position to utilize e-government to deal with what the UN report called a “set of complex, multifaceted and interdependent challenges” that face all governments.

More e-government should mean less stodgy public-sector operations. State and local governments that use e-government the right way are on their way to becoming “a cutting-edge business,” said NIC’s Herington. “They want to take the bureaucracy out of government. They understand how to leverage e-government.”

Without sacrificing security and privacy, e-government can create a more transparent public sector that enables citizens to evolve and have the kind of influence that has never existed before. The assessment is that e-government has been an overwhelmingly positive force for government, despite some shortcomings.

“E-government has changed the face of government and the way we do government,” summed up Purcell. “It has revolutionized how people interact with government. It really has made a huge difference.”

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Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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