Texas Comptroller Turns Records Inside Out

When the Texas Office of the Comptrollers launched a pilot Web application this spring, it wasn't the office's first foray onto the Internet.

Headed by comptroller of public accounts John Sharp, the technology-forward office-which collects taxes, tracks expenditures and monitors the financial condition of the state-had already captured citizens' attention and several awards with its Window on State Government Web page (www.cpa.state.tx.us/window-on-state-gov.html). The site provides citizens with fiscally related news releases, opinions and editorials, business forecasts, a grant directory, local government debt references and more.

Now it is tackling a Web project that aims to improve customer service and take some pressure off overworked employees in the office's Open Records Division. The office is testing a system that will post the state's franchise tax list online. Organizations such as large Texas commercial banks and national ratings companies such as Dun&Bradstreet use the list to determine what companies are registered and in good tax standing in the state.

Currently, people make inquiries via mail, fax or, most commonly, waiting on hold on the telephone. Because the volume of calls is so high-about 150,000 a year, or about 700 each business day-callers are limited to five inquiries per phone call. Many receive the information they need and then hang up and immediately redial to get back into the queue.

Now customers can opt to log on to a Web site (open.cpa.state.tx.us), fill out a form that asks for either the name of a given company or its tax number, and receive the company's address; status (whether it is in good standing or not); state of incorporation; charter number, date and status; corporate status and date; and the name of the corporation's registered agent in Texas.

The system will be live from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (CST). The comptrollers' office expects many of the heaviest requestors of franchise information to be those most likely to use the online service, according to Ralph Hutchins, a systems analyst in the Office of the Comptrollers. "We did some preliminary telephone surveys asking if [high-volume callers] would be amenable to an online system," Hutchins explained. "Everybody said yes."

Banks and other commerce institutions aren't the only ones that stand to benefit from the new franchise tax system. Internally, four workers who do nothing but field phone calls regarding the franchise tax have already starting using the system via an intranet hookup. Previously, for each phone call, workers had to manually query a DB2 database using cryptic, unforgiving codes, wait for the results and then either read these results over the phone to a caller or type them into a PC file for mailing or faxing to requestors.

Now workers simply fill out the same simple screen available to customers over the Web and read the results back to callers. "We don't have to worry about typos," said Judy Casey, the supervisor of operations and data reporting. "It goes to the mainframe for you, brings back your answer and prints it. The system eliminates human errors."

Employees did have to be trained on the new system, but the learning curve can be described in minutes rather than hours. "We were so backlogged [that] we hired a temp [recently]," Casey said. "She started training at [7:50 a.m.], and by 8 o'clock she had enough instruction to be working." Managers are hoping the system will reduce their backlog significantly and eventually free up workers to concentrate on more in-depth or complicated report requests, thereby improving the quality of customer service.

The genesis of the project was pretty simple. "We reasoned [that] if people are calling for this information and it's public information, then why not make it available over the Internet?" Hutchins said. That's a move that state comptrollers offices nationwide are increasingly apt to make, according to P.K. Agarwal, co-chairman of a task force on electronic commerce sponsored by the National Association of State Information Resources Executives and the Information Technology Association of America. "Web access to nonconfidential databases is the second wave of service to the citizen and a prelude to true government electronic commerce," he said.

Texas' franchise tax data resides on a Hitachi mainframe in a large DB2 database, along with all the state's other tax information, some of which is classified, Hutchins said. The Web-to-legacy connection is made using Amazon, which is a Web development tool from Intelligent Environments Inc., Burlington, Mass. Amazon acts as the translator between the Web query screen and DB2. "The Amazon screen 'scrapes' the CICS transactions," Hutchins explained. "We didn't have to rewrite any mainframe transactions" -- a priority the state had in choosing a translation product.

Although many government agencies choose to mirror data on separate PC servers for security reasons, Texas chose to use Amazon to directly access the data, even though it resides alongside information that is classified and confidential. That option allows the department to save money (by not having to maintain a separate PC database and/or server) and provide real-time information. As soon as a mainframe transaction is complete, the current franchise tax data is available online as well, according to Hutchins.

On the back end, security is provided via IBM Corp.'s RACF mainframe security system. In addition, all standard Windows NT and Web server security is also in place. "The security is pretty unbreakable," Hutchins said. To make the franchise tax data available, transaction codes were simply declassified from RACF.

To mirror or not to mirror is a choice other agencies face as well, according to Agarwal, although there is no one right answer. "One easy risk-abatement strategy is to make a separate copy of the nonconfidential portion of the data for public access," he pointed out. But "no one can guarantee 100 percent security of government databases. Government officials have to weigh the security risk, real or perceived, against the value of the service on a case-by-case basis."

As for future Web expansion, Hutchins says projects are queued up and waiting. One idea calls for opening up parts of the Office of the Comptrollers' document database so that items such as tax policy papers can be read or downloaded directly from the Internet.

In the meantime, the franchise tax project is up and running internally and being pilot-tested with a few accounts outside the office. And Hutchins says he already has one clear way of knowing that the system is a success. "If for some reason the server crashes, I hear about it right away," he said. "So I know it's being used."

-- Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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At a Glance

State of TexasOffice of the ComptrollersAustin Texaswww.cpa.state.tx.us

Program: Franchise tax status online

State Taxes Collected (Fiscal 1996): $19.8 billion

Checks Issued Annually: 8 million

Total Net State Revenue (Fiscal 1996): $40.5 billion

Organizational Payback: Dramatically reduces significant backlog of telephone fax and written requests for information on franchise tax status. Frees up agency employees to concentrate on more complicated requests.

Citizen Advantage: 12-hour on-demand online access to franchise tax records means no waiting in telephone queues for information large-volume customers (Texas commercial banks and national ratings companies) stand to benefit the most.

Cost Containment: Because the agency already had a PC Ethernet network managers were able to set up an intranet application for about $20 000 most of which encompassed the cost of a Web server and the Amazon legacy-to-Web software.

Tools: AST Manhattan Presence Pro Web server running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT 4.0 and Netscape Communications Corp.'s FastTrack Server software Intelligent Environments Inc.'s Amazon Web development tool Netscape's Navigator browser and PCs running Microsoft's Windows NT over an Ethernet network. On the back end a Hitachi mainframe runs a CICS DB2 database that houses the franchise tax data.

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