Oregon's Consumer Affairs Site Provides Vital Link to Business Services

Conventional wisdom holds that state agencies venturing onto the Internet should start small and stay practical with one or two key applications that are sure to win public approval.

But that kind of wisdom went out the window when the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS) launched its World Wide Web site. Embracing instead the "zero-to-60" ethos popular in automobile commercials, chief information officer Dan Adelman in six months led the department in building and launching a site that covers some 12 program areas and three support divisions.

It was no small feat for a department with duties as vast as the DCBS'. The organization, which functions as an umbrella agency for Oregon's regulatory and consumer-protection services, regulates all businesses in the state.

Among many other responsibilities, the DCBS sets insurance rates, addresses workers' compensation claims, enforces Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines, administers energy conservation and loan programs, regulates financial institutions from pawn brokers to international banks, and issues licenses to electricians, plumbers and other builders.

But in half a year, the DCBS managed to put together a comprehensive, cross-referenced site that lets citizens do everything from searching an online database of state-sanctioned appraisers to referencing precedent-setting workers' compensation cases to registering for and actually participating in OSHA safety and training courses online.

The reasons for the department's content-heavy startup are philosophical and economical, Adelman said. As far back as 1994, the agency had undertaken a consumer access project that prioritized ways customers could be better served. Kiosks were considered as one alternative to providing online access, but they were expensive and complicated to administer. Then came the Web explosion. "When the Internet started to expand in '95, we saw the opportunity to implement our vision much more quickly," Adelman said.

On the money side of the equation, Oregon spent some $65,000 up front for a Web server, browser software for every employee and training, and Adelman wanted to recoup that sum sooner rather than later. "You have the large investment up front, why not get your return much faster by doing as much as you can?" he reasoned.

Thus far, Adelman's logic has proven sound: The DCBS saved more than $75,000 in publication costs alone by posting online all public notices, research publications and administrative rules. And that doesn't take into account savings in individual program areas as workers are freed from repetitive clerical duties.

To accomplish the task in such short order, Adelman set up a Web steering committee composed of an executive from each DCBS division or program area.

The committee sets content standards and guidelines on how pages should look, and the system infrastructure is managed centrally, but content is solely the responsibility of individual program areas. One person, a document coordinator, or sometimes two people (one backup coder), are most often responsible for Web page upkeep in individual divisions.

The steering committee meets monthly to share ideas, with a different program area presenting its pages each time, Adelman said. "A little competition between one division and the next always works," he said, adding that the organization also studies outside sites for inspiration.

One place where the Web project has made a tangible difference is at the Appraiser's Certification and Licensure Board (ACLB), one of the programs under the DCBS. The board makes available online its database of every person holding a license or temporary permit for appraisals in the state.

Customers-primarily banks and other lending institutions, attorneys and other appraisers, both in-state and out-can search the database by person or region and pull up a list of license holders, their phone numbers and the date their licenses or permits expire.

Customers enjoy 24-hour access to the data and no longer have to wait in a telephone queue or wait for documents to be mailed or faxed to them, said Linda Riddell, administrator for the ACLB. The board saves on printing, mailing and long-distance telephone costs, and its workers are freed from many clerical tasks-a significant consideration with a staff of only five people.

"The [site] is a wonderful thing in terms of time management," Riddell said. "With the information up there 24 hours a day, the staff can work on other projects." One board employee prepares and posts data to the site, a job he "loves to do and was interested in anyhow," Riddell said.

The Workers' Compensation Board posts all its orders online for attorneys working on cases that are similar or related to one another.

Previously, people had to either come into the office to reference a hard copy or call for a copy of an order, which costs 25 cents per page for parties not directly involved in the case at hand. In addition to the orders, workers' compensation administrative rules are posted online, as is board news, the "Case Notes" newsletter and claim-disposition agreement orders.

Online orders are a convenience and a cost-saver not only for lawyers and plaintiffs but also for the board workers and other Oregon employees who must reference the data frequently, said Margie Stice, systems coordinator for the board. "We were always making significant copies of noteworthy cases" for administrative law judges and other board workers (121 in total), as well as OSHA employees and other internal state workers.

Adelman hopes that kind of internal use of the Web-based data will only increase in and among the various DCBS program areas.

In fact, he is actively promoting the use of an internal site behind the firewall for moving vast quantities of paperwork, policies and procedures.

The hope is that one day the Web browser will be the standard interface for as many business applications as possible.

Adelman also lists one final and unexpected benefit of the department's Web site: improved employee morale. "We've seen a lot of enthusiasm, innovation and creativity from people who would not have expected to take to the Internet," he said. "They spend a lot of time thinking about it. It's really energized the work staff."

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

AT A GLANCE

Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS)

Number of Employees: 1,200 in about 20 locations statewide.

DCBS Internet Project: www.cbs.state.or.us

Organizational Payback: Frees workers in individual program areas from telephone, photocopying and mailing tasks; saves departmentwide printing costs; inspires DCBS workers to use the Internet to fulfill both client services and their own internal data-sharing requirements.

Citizen Advantage: Provides a single, always-open location where a wide range of users, from laborers to lawyers, can access the full breadth and depth of state-related business information, including workers' compensation, emerging small businesses, property appraisers and securities regulation.

Cost Containment: To recoup its $65,000 initial investment quickly, Oregon chose to launch a multiple-page, multiple-application site all at once, thereby consolidating payback rather than rolling out services one by one.

Tools

Web Server: NCSA HTTPd Web Server running on Sun Sparc 20 (Solaris 2.5) hardware.

Browser: Netscape 2.0 browser, migrating to 3.02 shortly.

Desktops: Minimum configuration is 486 66 MHz with 16M of RAM. Currently running Windows 3.11 and migrating to Windows 95 and adding 8M of more RAM.

Network: Currently using NetWare 3.12; will be migrating to 4.11.

Database: CGI scripts and Sybase DBMS for data access.

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