A host of Web site assistance

Public/private partnerships aim to help cash-strapped cities and counties boost their online presence

The League of Minnesota Cities

Two competing initiatives could boost the Internet presence and enhance

the online interactive capabilities of U.S. cities and counties strapped

for financial resources and technological expertise.

In one partnership, a small software company called Avenet LLC created

a hosted Web development product called GovOffice WebCreator, which municipalities

can access via the Internet to create customized and interactive sites.

Avenet's partners are the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC), the International

City/County Management Association (ICMA) and Microsoft Corp.

Another hosted Web development system was created by IBM Corp. in collaboration

with the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties

(NACo).

Officials from both alliances said the products are essential because

so many smaller municipalities cannot afford to hire additional workers

with the right expertise, continually purchase and upgrade hardware and

software, or contract with technology companies to develop Web sites and

interactive features.

"We literally had mayors of some of the cities building their Web sites,"

said Eric Johnson, Avenet's chief executive officer.

Christine Becker, deputy executive director of the National League of

Cities, said their setup makes things extremely easy.

"The program was designed to be so simple [that] you could use it, you

could design it, you could make it work without having to bring in highly

technical people," she said.

This year, based on a survey of cities and counties with populations

of 10,000 and above, Public Technology Inc. and ICMA reported that municipalities

that have Web sites used them for nothing more than posting information.

A private company, Civic Resource Group, examined 224 cities with populations

of more than 100,000 and reported similar results.

But Elizabeth Kellar, deputy executive director of ICMA, which represents

appointed managers and administrators in local governments worldwide, pointed

out that most communities with populations less than 10,000 have no Internet

presence at all. "They haven't been able to get the kind of tools...to get

a Web site running," she said.

Mary-Margaret Zindren, assistant to the League of Minnesota Cities'

executive director, said her state association conducted a survey last year

and found that 67 percent of surveyed cities in Minnesota "did not have

any Web presence whatsoever." She said the municipalities cited high cost

and the complexity of technology as barriers to launching a Web site.

{h3} About GovOffice

GovOffice, which is hosted at dedicated and secure AT&T data centers,

was introduced during the League of Minnesota Cities' conference this past

summer, following a beta test by 14 cities in Minnesota — with populations

ranging from 700 to 50,000 — as well as 35 cities and other states. Up

to 75 municipalities have purchased or are expected to purchase the product.

At

a fraction of what it costs to hire a Web development company, municipal

officials without any technical expertise can post and update information;

add photos, links, audio and video files; conduct online polls; and offer

constituent services and dozens of other options, according to Avenet's

Johnson.

"There's a significant amount of interactivity built into the core system,"

he said. "The forum system allows local units of government to be interactive

with their citizens on receiving and sending information. The ability for

constituents to report a pothole or to sign up to receive city council minutes

are interactive."

Not only do Web sites give constituents access to government information

around the clock, but governments can also use the sites to increase tourism

and economic development, Johnson said.

"If you want to be competitive in a world economy, you have to operate

24/7," ICMA's Kellar said. "Business expects local governments to operate

in that fashion."

GovOffice's price depends on a municipality's population. Those with

populations of less than 500 pay a one-time $200 license fee and then a

$20-per-month hosting fee. Those with populations of 60,000 or more pay

a $3,000 license fee and a $120-a-month hosting charge. Johnson said this

represents about a 10th of the cost of traditional custom Web development.

{h3} The IBM Alliance

IBM and NLC announced their collaboration in December 2000, and NACo

joined the alliance this year.

In March, IBM and NLC tested the Web development product with 12 municipal

leagues involving about 40 to 50 cities, Becker said. In one Washington

city, the mayor's daughter used the product to create the government's Web

site. In an Arkansas city, the mayor developed the city's site.

Becker said Web site development is just one aspect of the project,

and the partners plan to offer several interactive applications quarterly,

such as a citizen action center.

Muncipalities pay a basic sign-up fee of $295 and then $49 per month

for IBM to host the site, Becker said. Her alliance is working with individual

state municipal leagues to promote the product to its members. So far, about

27 leagues have expressed interest and are developing business models.

Bert Jarreau, NACo's chief technology officer, said that although larger

counties have the money to "do what they want to do" on the Web, some smaller

counties can't do anything. A year ago, only about 43 percent of counties

nationwide had a site, according to the PTI/ICMA survey. Jarreau cited lack

of funds, IT expertise and broadband capability as some of the reasons.

NACo signed a memorandum of understanding with IBM in July and planned

to have a contract in place by mid-September spelling out a pricing structure

for counties. However, the contract process has take longer than expected,

and the new target date for getting the contract signed is Nov. 1, Jarreau

said. He expects a pilot project to roll out after that and pointed out

that the product is also an affordable option for schools and special districts.

Jarreau said NACo officials had considered teaming with Avenet and ICMA,

but IBM's stature appealed to them. "Quite frankly, we believe IBM is going

to be in business for quite a while," he said.

Officials from both alliances said they welcome the competition and

that it's good for municipalities to have choices in the market. Johnson

said the collaboration with Microsoft will give Avenet "tremendous marketing

clout and exposure" to distribute the technology internationally.

NEXT STORY: Rural police may get tech boost

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