Hey, private sector, it takes two to partner
- By Barry Smith
- Oct 02, 2000
"We want to be your e-government partner."
Over the past year, just about every government information technology
executive has received more than one call related to this topic. Let's step
back and think about what e-government really is and what a good partnership
should look like.
By definition, a partnership is a "relationship between individuals
or groups that is characterized by mutual cooperation and responsibility,
as for the achievement of a specified goal." Do any of us really have a
partnership with our vendors?
Sure, we pay them money to provide us with a product or service, but
mutual cooperation? Working together toward a specific goal? I would only
put one of my vendors in that category.
Such business propositions frequently occur as part of another vague
trend — the e-ification of everything, including government. My belief
is that my job as information technology director is to manage everything
"e-related" outside of the big E — electricity. Generally, before any government
goes "e," the infrastructure must be put in place first.
By infrastructure, I refer to reliable, functional cabling, desktops,
networks and operating systems; well-trained staff; and, most importantly,
the underlying systems and databases. Potential partners: Are you listening?
With products or services, you can help me put these systems in place, provide
ongoing support and view information via reports and maps.
I need you to build the system for me, provide competent, responsive
technical support and work with me to evolve your solution to meet our changing
businesses needs. So, my potential partner, I assume you are now hustling
to figure out how you can join my application providers to get in on the
action. That's fine. Out on your own, you may or may not add more value
than the Web strategies from my existing, packaged software vendors.
Now let's talk about the misperception floating around in the industry — that e-government means simply providing services over the World Wide
Web. The Web is a powerful medium, and its usage is growing exponentially
by the day. However, the Web doesn't match the availability and familiarity
of the telephone. So let's add Interactive Voice Response to our e-government
definition. Can we also add fax-back and e-mail to our "public access toolkit"?
In Gaithersburg, we are ready to move forward with transaction-based
services, but this doesn't apply to everyone. Most e-government providers
are putting the cart before the horse regarding online services. Two years
ago, we took a look at the state of municipal Web sites and found that
most services consisted of posting public information. Even most commercial
Web sites are unattended information-delivery mechanisms with, potentially,
a built-in feedback mechanism — generally for customer service. Back in
1998, we knew of no "partners" providing viable, cost-effective content
management solutions for local government, so we decided to build our own.
Our first step was to post news and events from a database. We expanded
this concept by putting every bit of content from our Web site into a database-driven
system we built ourselves. Note to e-government partners: Start with a content
management engine because we all need this type of solution. If you provide
a solution as good as or better than our custom solution, I will gladly
get out of the custom software business. If you want to host and monitor
my site, even better.
Here's one of the big problems with a content management engine being
the core of a vendor's e-government offering. When all of the e-government
vendors jumped out of the womb last year, most wanted to focus on "creative
funding models" by charging fees for transactions. You can't charge a fee
for delivering Web pages.
In business school, I learned that when you pay for something over time,
you eventually liquidate your debt. But those transaction models are never
ending and essentially amount to user fees, with vendor profits based on
"market demand." Even worse, studies have shown that those models discourage
use of services that we all agree increase government efficiency and customer
satisfaction. Partners, just sell me the software upfront — even if you
host the service — and I'll budget for and pay the maintenance fees associated
with innovation and support.
So before anyone else calls to offer me a "partnership," let's think
about creating a thorough, mutually beneficial one that in the end benefits
our constituents. l
—Smith is information technology director for the city of Gaithersburg,