States Jump on the Web Portal Bandwagon

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this week that states can be barred from selling private companies the personal information drivers supply to state motor vehicle departments.

Government agencies once were considered leading edge if they put up a World Wide Web site. But if you think you're a modern Internet denizen because you have a few Web pages up, think again. Welcome to the age of the portal.

As envisioned, government portals will offer the public a single online gateway to a slew of services, eventually providing access to information and transactions within two or three mouse clicks, rather than the hours it might take now. A growing number of agencies are beginning to realize that portals will play a crucial role in the emerging concept of electronic government.

Building this "single face to the citizen" also is expected to reap benefits for government. Most agencies build their Web sites according to their own needs, but a government portal will require a more uniform approach to the look and feel of its Web pages. By standardizing Web processes across a governmentwide network, managers hope to improve communication between agencies.

"As a government, we want to increase the number of two-way transactions we have with our business and citizen constituents," said David Moon, Utah's chief information officer. "We would not want to have every agency putting together their own solution for this, so the desire on our end is to provide one infrastructure and environment."

The aim is to provide that single face according to Utah citizens' needs rather than the needs of the state's agencies, he said. But he admitted this could take some time because "even the best government Web sites are still based around the bureaucratic needs of agencies."

Agency Web sites traditionally have been built more to match the agencies' own way of managing information, Moon explained, rather than to make it easier for the citizen to access information and services.

A government home page may have a comprehensive list of services and agencies, for example, but it's usually up to users to find their way to what they want, and that can be time-consuming and frustrating. Also, individual departments may have their own ideas of how to present their information, confounding users with an array of different interfaces as they try to navigate among agency sites.

If someone has a variety of personal and business taxes to pay, for example, that could require going through two or three different agency Web sites.

A portal, on the other hand, might have taxes as one of its designated functions. The user would work within that single portal space, automatically being connected to the appropriate agency site and page. And agencies will design their Web sites according to a single set of specifications, giving users the impression they are working in a single Web site.

The Portal Sell

In theory, creating a portal is relatively simple. Doing it takes work, however.

"When we first started [on portal development], there was certainly a good deal of skepticism from some agencies about whether or not this was all needed," said Laura Larimer, Indiana's CIO.

Agencies tended to view portals primarily as an issue for their information systems departments to handle. "So there was a certain amount of internal education we had to do to show the agencies that [the portal] would be important to them for doing business and for serving the public better," Larimer said.

Agencies will find obvious advantages in the portal approach, said Laura Parma, assistant director for interactive technologies in Washington state's Department of Information Services. Her department created a set of templates for agencies to use, for example, and they readily saw this as a resource to more easily redesign their own Web pages.

At the same time, she said, "it is a challenge for them to coexist with other agencies, through the same look and feel of the Web pages. What they need to be convinced of is that the customer — the public — doesn't care how good-looking each agency site is. They just want to be able to get to the information," Parma said.

The strategy requires support from the top levels of government. That support was lacking from the governor on down in previous Iowa administrations, said the state's current CIO Richard Varn, when technology as an aid to governing was actively shunned. "There was a lot of talk, but no one was actually doing anything," he said.

Now the executive branch and the legislature have gotten behind the idea, and, after more than two years of development work, the state's online process "is evolving into a portal."

"What it comes down to is that the agencies need to understand that the portal is where the government is going to provide state information, and that it can't be an option for them," said Larimer. "Building the portal has to be seen as a strategic direction for government, and that can only come from the executive level."

At What Expense?

Funding is a major issue. A portal needs the flexibility to twist and turn according to technology and policy events that occur in "Internet time." If a Web portal is contingent upon the relatively slow-moving appropriations process, so the argument goes, then it will never keep up with the demands of the fast-moving Web arena.

A number of states have chosen to outsource portal management. Contracts — typically five years long — are long enough that strategic needs can be dealt with sufficiently without the threat of constant "redefinitions" of the portal strategy that might come if they frequently changed hands. Also, states derive operational funds from user fees for transactions conducted via the portal, which circumvents the need to go to the legislature for yearly funding.

Many people in Indiana's leadership, for example, saw the potential of the Internet for boosting state services, Larimer said. "But people were loath to increase budgets and to set up a new service within government [for managing the portal], so we started to look for creative ways to make the gateway self-funding."

The solution, also adopted by other states, was to charge insurance companies and others for online access to driving records. This is a business transaction common to all states, and requires a fee of several dollars for state employees to dig out the records and provide paper copies to those that ask for them. For another dollar, Indiana insurance companies can apply online for those records, Larimer said.

It's that extra dollar, split between the portal provider and the state, that goes to fund management of the portal and to support development of other free services. Because the revenue from that dollar "is an ample resource," Larimer said, her department does not have to look for a supplemental budget to help fund the portal.

But there are other approaches. Washington's Department of Information Services, for example, manages the state's portal through its regular budget, and all of the applications and content development are the responsibility of the agencies themselves. The portal costs are kept to a minimum by keeping things as simple as possible, Parma said. "By design, we have not made any major changes to the portal in a year," she said.

And Iowa tried but eventually abandoned the fee-for-service approach.

"When the new governor came in, he said he did not want to bootstrap this in order to fund something that he felt government should be doing anyway," Varn said. "So our strategy is to fund the portal wherever we can through appropriations or to find the money to do it from other things we do."

Ramping Up

Setting up a portal is only the first step to e-government. Getting to the point where money transactions can be completed seamlessly through a Web-based gateway eventually requires technology for verifying the identities of users involved, digital signatures and other technology. But things are moving faster than most people would have considered possible even a short while ago.

"The burgeoning electronic commerce and portal business is only some 2 years old," pointed out Jim Dodd, president of National Information Consortium Inc. (NIC), Overland Park, Kan., which provides outsourced portal services to state and local governments. "[The progress] governments [have made] is a testimony to their aggressiveness in [creating portals]."

Governments vary widely in their readiness to put together portals, he said. In some cases, agencies find they lack the interagency connections needed to put together the standardized, governmentwide infrastructure needed for a portal.

"But one constant is that they understand what extraordinary benefit

e-government and the Web has for them," Dodd said. "I would be surprised if any government decided not to advance with some kind of portal approach."

Kansas CIO Don Heiman agrees. The state, which partners with NIC for its portal, began developing a statewide network in the early 1990s to provide services to its largely rural population and to provide broader access to its databases.

But the Web completely changed ideas of what would be possible, he said, enabling people to look at how to extend the enterprise network to support tourism, online licensing and other services. Those requirements will define a future portal.

"It's forced us to look at ourselves functionally and to finally see a way to present ourselves as a virtual government with an electronic face," Heiman said. "It's given us a new way of thinking about government."

— Brian Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

Public/Private Partnership

Utah jumped into the portal fray more recently than most. It began exploring the idea of a government portal just more than a year ago and published a request for proposals during the winter after investigating how other states had progressed with their electronic gateways.

After considering options for developing the portal, including doing it all in-house, the state decided on a public/private partnership. It chose National Information Consortium Inc. as the private partner.

Since Utah's governor had been pushing for a long time to offer services online, getting support from the state's top executive was not much of an issue, Moon said. However, bringing agencies to a common understanding has proven difficult. "Sometimes a particular agency might want its 'brand' to be on a certain service. The public couldn't care less, but it can be hard to get agencies to understand that," he said.

One of the keys to moving the portal along was the formation of the interagency EC Council, Moon said, which provides agencies with a way to get their views across about what the portal should contain.

The council includes several private- sector representatives — an important detail because many of the fee-based services on the portal will be ones that are government-business based. "We will make sure we contact businesses before we add services," Moon said.

The portal will give access to all of the government information that was available through the state's World Wide Web site, but it also will contain new services designed specifically for the portal, such as online license renewals. Three services are up and running, and 12 are in development, Moon said.

While people seem happy with the way things are progressing, Moon said he would have wanted to develop service delivery earlier.

"There are some technology issues involved with this, such as security and making sure of 24/7 access, and implementing the correct tools takes time and effort," he said. "We wanted to make sure all of this would be integrated successfully with the existing directory service, and getting the pieces to fit together took more effort than we initially thought."

However, Moon is confident things are coming together well enough that success is within reach. The legislature has mandated that all key government services be online by 2002.

"I definitely think we'll get to that," Moon said.

— Brian Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

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