Hey, private sector, it takes two to partner

"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"?

Thanks, partner.

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,

Md.

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