California's photo finish

On Sept. 21, California's chief executive, Gov. Gray Davis, issued a daunting challenge: By the end of the year, he wanted a statewide Internet portal offering a one-stop shop for government information and services.

To head up the e-government initiative, he appointed Arun Baheti, then deputy director of the Governor's Office for Innovation in Government. Baheti recalled many people thought the task was impossible.

"It led to a lot of sleepless nights," said Baheti, California director of eGovernment. "That's how you move government: set an ambitious goal, put people on the ground and hold them accountable."

Roughly 110 days later, the state unveiled a portal — "My California" (my.ca.gov). Officials proclaimed it ahead of the curve; some said it was a feat that even the private sector may not have been able to accomplish.

Users can customize the site, which complies with Americans with Disabilities Act certification guidelines. The portal offers nearly a dozen new online transactional options, including obtaining fishing licenses and buying state park passes online. And state officials can now instantaneously update information without having to go to a computer programmer.

"This site is very much a customer-centric site that's focused on one government, one customer," said Carlo Grifone, a partner with Deloitte Consulting, the project's lead integrator. "All [citizens] care about is that they get their service quicker and get it more efficiently than before."

To get there, the state and what it considered to be the best private- sector players in Web development engaged in an intensive and collaborative approach. The state had basically adopted a private-sector mindset for the job, officials said.

Even before Davis issued his challenge, state officials already had been meeting with technology companies, mostly in Silicon Valley, to help develop a framework. "We took the time and had access to literally the best minds in the world," Baheti said.

One of the most important concepts to emerge was the idea of customer service, which Baheti called the "mother lode" in truly transforming government services. He said the state had to tailor online services to the customers' needs and convenience.

Accomplishing it all in the time allowed was no easy task for the state, which represents the sixth largest economy in the world. Officials also said the state Web site was the third most visited public-sector site last year, behind the Internet Revenue Service and U.S. Postal Service.

The state is "the equivalent to an enormous Web retailer," he said.

The state started building the portal in a modular fashion, bringing in several top technology companies, all California-based, to contribute their expertise.

BroadVision, Inc. provided a flexible and scalable platform for online transactions and software to personalize the portal. Verity Inc. provided a high-level search engine, and its software powers the portal. Interwoven Inc. software enables state employees, who contribute and manage content, to publish the information quickly and efficiently. Broadbase Software's marketing and analytic software allows state employees to analyze visitor data, such as which links are popular.

In addition, officials from several agencies worked in tandem with the companies, in what Baheti called a "very finely tuned sort of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance." He said he was particularly proud of using staff from the California Research Bureau of the State Library to help organize the information found on the portal.

"These are professionals whose sole responsibility in life is to organization information," he said.

The total cost to revamp the site was $2 million.

The result, said Baheti, is a portal that will save California residents and businesses time and money.

"What is the value of 500,000 people a year spending two hours less standing in line at the DMV?" he posed. "It's a quality of life issue. I don't know how to place a dollar value on that."

Only several state agencies — the motor vehicles, parks, fishing and game, social services, consumer affairs, and transportation departments, the Franchise Tax Board, and the Trade and Commerce Agency — participated in the rollout and have adopted the "look and feel" of the new portal. But Baheti said the 100-plus state agencies will eventually adopt the new look.

"It's important [for customers] to have a common experience across our departments," he said.

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