Small-Business Approach Leads to E-Government Portal Success

Jan 27, 2005 (11:01 AM EST)

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A key component of the E-Government Act of 2002 outlined the sponsorship of on-going dialogue between state and local governments, the general public, and the private and non-profit sectors in order to collaborate on the use of information technology to improve the delivery of government services.

However, a recent e-government update from Brown University’s Center for Public Policy reports that government Web sites have a number of quality control issues, such as broken links, missing titles, missing keywords, and warnings and redirects to new pages within e-government portals. Notably, this data ranked among the top five most important findings of the research.

And while it is almost universally acknowledged that e-government needs to move at the speed of the private sector in order to truly fulfill citizens’ needs and the law’s requirements, the reality is that progress has been slower than expected.

This is not to say that great strides haven’t been made in e-government portals. However, in order to realize their full potential, municipalities should take a page from the private sector and manage e-government initiatives in the same manner that a business is managed. Hiring experts from the private sector will accelerate e-government portal development and allow it to catch up with the online experiences we’ve come to know from commercial industry.

To fully exploit the power of e-government portals, Washington County, Virginia, leveraged private sector experience to completely revamp its e-government portal to better serve its citizens.

The e-Government Challenge

Based in Abingdon, Virginia, the Washington County government provides more than 51,000 citizens and 1,200 full time employees with a wide variety of diverse services. These services include everything from providing private citizens with online tax assessment information to providing county schools with online access to critical budget reports. Additionally, emergency personnel rely on the county for geographic information services, such as mapping.

Like many government entities, Washington County was constantly seeking to provide up-to-date services. Accordingly, when citizens and county employees began asking for easier access to information, the county knew it had to act quickly.

At issue were Washington County’s outdated business processes, which were creating bottlenecks for citizens, driving down the productivity of county staff, and generally preventing the county from becoming a more responsive government. Some examples include tax attorneys having to drive to a county building just to view home-owner tax assessment data, and the county’s 15 schools having to rely on monthly printouts to balance their budgets.

As technology advanced in the private sector and e-Government deadlines loomed, Washington County knew they needed to develop a more sophisticated portal to address citizens’ and employees’ needs. Unfortunately, an earlier attempt at an e-government portal for Washington County didn’t result in much more than a website consisting primarily of static forms and schedules.

The Strategy

The first order of business by Washington County’s IT staff was to outline an efficient way to:

  • Quickly Web-enable and extend existing core applications,
  • Provide Internet access to the content housed in the county’s internal systems,
  • Create an IT environment that would support the portal’s continued evolution.

Essentially, to provide a higher standard of service, Washington County needed to transform its core business processes while operating on a limited public budget.

Washington County’s strategy included five critical success factors:

  • Not adhering to the lowest bid methodology ; instead choosing the IT solution best suited to the county’s e-government needs,
  • Approaching the e-government portal like a small business, not a nice-to-have offering,
  • Tapping into the private sector’s proven skills in portal development and deployment,
  • Measuring and managing each phase of the implementation against budget,
  • Holding each team member accountable.

The Solution

One of the most critical business decisions that the county made regarding its e-government portal was the selection of technology to best meet its business needs today and in the future. This strategy is somewhat counter to many e-government selection processes that rely on a traditional approach of choosing the lowest bid, regardless of the future financial and productivity losses that selection may incur.

After evaluating several portal and infrastructure solutions, including Microsoft .Net, Washington County decided that an open, integrated environment across a variety of hardware and software platforms would present the most cost-effective and business-efficient e-government solution.

For help with this massive transformation, the county turned to IBM Business Partner Burk Consulting, Inc., a Tennessee-based provider of IT services. Both Burk and Washington County’s IT staff had prior development experience gained from extensive work in the private sector that they leveraged for the portal project.

The private sector skills paid off tremendously as both the county and Burk approached the e-government overhaul as a small business project. Of course, the citizens and employees were regarded as the portal’s high-touch customers that had come to expect superior service. Working with Burk Consulting, the county implemented an IBM e-government portal solution using:

  • WebSphere Portal running on a Red Hat Linux-based operating system,
  • WebSphere Application Server acting as the runtime environment for the Web programs,
  • WebSphere Host Access Transformation Services (HATS) to recognize the components of the host screens and transform them in real time to a Web interface based on a set of predefined actions such as drop-down lists, links, buttons, and customized logos,
  • DB2 Universal Database to store critical information,
  • Lotus Workplace Web Content Management tool for key word searches and simplification of content creation and management, and
  • iSeries servers.

Much like a business, Washington County had a phased approach to e-government that hinged on successful and incremental rollouts of each portion of the portal. At each phase, the project team carefully and consistently monitored resource and budget allocation to ensure they were appropriately aligned. The county didn’t move forward on the next phase until the previous one had been rigorously tested.

One critical rollout included Web-enabling the county’s budget information. While the challenge of combining a variety of operating platforms into a seamless, service-providing system at first seemed daunting, the county was able to rapidly make its property tax and budgetary applications available as HTML pages via the Internet by leveraging its open development environment.

Another crucial element was to provide private attorneys with Web access to delinquent tax information. This phase represents a core functionality of e-government, as previously attorneys had to leave their office and share the one public computer in the county building to access this information.

Addressing the schools’ e-government needs, Washington County also integrated the county’s internal information and applications through a single point of access. This was to provide all fifteen schools in the county with real-time Web access to critical financial applications. By allowing the remote schools to access financial data on demand, the e-government portal empowers the schools to manage their allocated budgets with greater efficiency. Another vital application found in the Washington County portal is GIS mapping for emergency preparedness and recovery.

These are just a few examples of the time and cost savings that Washington County has experienced through a sophisticated approach to e-government and a dedicated focus on its success.

Success: Today and in the Future

Washington County has leapfrogged its initial tech underpinnings and today has an e-government portal that transcends internal procedures and boundaries by providing seamless access to relevant online information for citizens and staff.

The new Washington County portal has evolved into an interactive Web search function that allows users access the county’s wealth of content — whether it’s county codes or ten years’ worth of meeting minutes and agendas — and easily find what they are looking for. Citizens and employees can conduct keyword searches and be able to easily access documents, and the infrastructure to support future portal growth is in place. The results of this effort are high employee productivity and increased customer and staff satisfaction, without requiring the replacement or rebuilding of its existing IT infrastructure.

In addition, the Washington County portal allows citizens to access data outside the internal network and allows the county to respond more efficiently to citizens and staff. Now, attorneys are able to retrieve information from their own office, freeing up their time to spend on more productive matters.

Moving forward, the county plans to arm building inspectors with tablet computers that connect wirelessly to the portal in real time. They will be able to check building histories, review past inspections and access property records on the inside network — all from the field. In addition, the county intends to provide emergency personnel with mobile access to the geographic information system.

Today, Washington County is considered an e-government leader. This is based on the success of their portal in meeting citizens’ and employees’ needs, as well as the business strategy behind its deployment and future evolution.

With just two years remaining from the federal e-government funds infusion — a total of $345 million over a four year period — now is the time to map out a successful portal strategy that will serve your customers today and evolve with your local, state and federal constituents in the years to come.

Nadine Culberson worked in the private sector as a software systems consultant for 12 years before joining Washington County.