Mention portals today and people assume that you're steering them to a glorified
Web site that promises the world but somehow falls way short, like a really
promising doorway that leads nowhere special.
Like any buzzword, the term "portal" has been misused and overused.
But the idea of a truly integrated enterprise portal one that acts as
a single face of state and local government, is customer-centric and makes
the process of dealing with various services immediate, simple, seamless
and intuitive has become one of the hottest projects among state and local
officials eager to improve customer service and access.
No one has quite hit that bar, but states are laying the foundation
for their own versions of dynamic, user-friendly "MyGov" sites.
California, for example, recently launched MyCalifornia. Pennsylvania
replaced its home page last fall with a portal called PA PowerPort. Washington
state, which has had a portal called AccessWashington online since 1998,
recently refreshed it, adding "plain English" search capabilities and a
site for confidential transactions with digital certificates.
Other states that have put up sites for eventual one-stop government
shopping include North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Michigan. And recently,
a slew of requests for proposals for statewide portals have hit the street,
put out by such states as Oklahoma, Vermont, Delaware, Mississippi and Arizona.
It's the evolution of e-government. "You're giving the user what they
want," said Chris Dixon, digital government project director for the National
Association of State Information Resource Executives, who adds that initial
government home pages tended to be virtual bureaucracies. But now, "when
[citizens] come into one of these portals, they don't have to be an expert
on how government works or spend a lot of time trying to figure out which
agency handles business licenses. It's geared toward the way the average
States interested in enterprise portals have the same goal: a single
entry point into government that allows constituents to get everything they
need without the cyber equivalent of long lines and bureaucratic hassle.
But getting from here to there is a long and potentially arduous process
that requires strong leadership and a well-thought-out technological approach
that can overcome culture clashes among agencies.
Most states expect the task of having all services available through
the portal to take at least five years, if not longer.
"I liken it to building a stained glass window," said Arun Baheti, director
of e-government for California. "We have that overall image giving citizens
one view into government but we still have to put the smaller pieces of
glass, the individual projects, into the larger mosaic. We'll get to that
larger mosaic, but right now we don't know exactly what every little piece
is going to look like."
A Common Vision
Here's the goal: Constituents visit Web sites and see a page of "intentions-based"
services. In other words, what do users need?
Instead of being presented with a list of agencies and having to guess
their way through departments and bureaucracy, users simply have to know
what they need from government. Users want to find jobs, file taxes, get
copies of their birth certificates or claim unclaimed property.
"The early home pages were all about government looking out," said Charles
Gerhards, deputy secretary for information technology for Pennsylvania.
"This model turns that on its head. Here, the focus is from the customer's
vantage point, looking into government."
An enterprise portal offers value in two basic ways. One is by taking
away the need for citizens to understand the complexity of government. The
other is by enabling users to save time.
To make navigation as straightforward as possible and get customers
to their desired information or services in one to three clicks, California,
Pennsylvania and Washington have incorporated features that make the quest
Hot links listing the actual services by name not the agencies are
available for the clicking. Navigation links based on constituent such
as citizen or business use overlay menus to take a user deep into the
site without even leaving the home page. Search engines enable constituents
to ask simple questions and get helpful answers. Users can even personalize
their experience, registering to have certain kinds of information sent
to them via e-mail or shown each time they visit the portal page.
The PA PowerPort, for example, enables users to register for information
by clicking on boxes. The information is automatically sent to them via
e-mail. Eventually, the state expects to offer additional personalization,
such as apprising license-holders of renewal deadlines and giving customized
weather reports based on ZIP code.
MyCalifornia plans to take personalization a step further by developing
a common customer database that enables citizens to create personal accounts.
They would fill out basic information that multiple agencies need, such
as name, address, Social Security number and phone number, and the database
would automatically populate the common fields of any application they pull
The feature comes in handy with processes that touch multiple departments,
such as starting a business, which requires permits from state and local
agencies, getting tax ID numbers, setting up unemployment and workers' compensation
insurance programs, and other steps.
"If you want to open a business in California, you have to deal with
I'm not kidding 20-plus agencies," Baheti said. "Every one of those
agencies is asking for a specific piece of information, but they're also
asking for largely the same information over and over and over again. We
can cut through that and make the whole process simpler and faster."
Washington has taken a completely opposite view of personalization.
Because of strong concerns about government collecting private information
on citizens, the new portal enables citizens to remain completely anonymous
on 75 percent of the applications. The remaining applications that require
identification, such as financial applications or obtaining health records,
can be accessed via TransactWashington, a link from the main portal that
enables citizens to use a single sign-on to access multiple sites, and digital
certificates to secure online transactions.
"Our policy dictates that we not collect personal information ever,"
said Steve Kolodney, chief information officer for the state of Washington.
Despite its stance on personalization, Washington achieves its goals
of saving time and reducing complexity. Instead of having people register
to have specific information sent to them, it provides a more general electronic
mailing list. And instead of individual customer accounts, it provides single
forms that cut across agencies.
For example, the Department of Licensing has just launched a new site
called the Master Business License, which enables customers to make a single
application to the state and on one form satisfy the requirements of the
six agencies involved in the process.
"Now, behind the scenes, there are still six agencies and those six
agencies still have their legislative requirements, but you as a business
only have to click on one link, "Start a Business,' " Kolodney said. "Our
goal is to make everything look seamless to the user, even if it's not seamless
on the back end."
Making it Happen
States have similar goals for the front ends of their portals but very
different approaches on the back ends. "There's no one way to do this,"
Baheti said. "Each state has to figure it out based on their IT environment,
their agency culture and other criteria."
California plans to centralize its effort with a single application
development environment that features core databases and core transaction
engines. Eventually, the environment will house all of the state's e-government
Baheti said this approach makes sense because the state has two data
centers that already house most of its technology and Web servers. As departments
develop applications, they'll be moved to the central environment.
The setup makes it easier to share information among departments and
create multiple-agency applications. Baheti said if a department doesn't
think relocating its application makes business sense or it has already
invested in a different set of technologies, it can still participate in
"However, we are mandating certain compatibility issues to make the
process seamless to the end user," Baheti said.
Washington takes what it calls a community approach. It invites agencies
to build applications and move them into its new e-government community,
but they must build it within the infrastructure of the portal, which means
connecting to Access-Washington, using the same security structure and incorporating
front-end portal features such as a plain-English search function, navigational
links and digital certificates.
To accelerate the process, Kolodney's group has set up templates so state
agencies (and eventually county governments) can put up applications that
look and feel like AccessWashington. In addition, agencies with common
business problems can come to the new Digital Government Applications Academy
and solve their problems together.
In Permits 101, the academy's first class, six agencies worked together
to build a permit application template that other agencies are now using
to launch applications. The template is even being picked up by the state
of Georgia for use in its portal. Now the academy is offering Electronic
"We're not harvesting an agency's application and trying to build it
for them," Kolodney said. "We think they need to build it themselves, otherwise,
they never instill a culture that sees themselves as presenting online services."
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is relying on cutting-edge technology to create
online applications. Dynamic Site Framework (DSF), developed in partnership
with Peripherals Plus Technology, is a basic toolkit for agencies.
With DSF, the state can easily develop common plug-in components such
as permitting, licensing, calendars and credit card processing. "It's a
"build once, use it many times' philosophy," Gerhards said. "And it reflects
our focus on the customer because, for example, credit card transactions
will have the same look and feel at each site."
Everyone who has started an enterprise portal said it's about finally
ridding the government of stovepipe thinking. The ability to actually re-engineer
processes and make it simpler for citizens has been an ongoing goal, but
government players say that the enterprise portal can be an easy solution
if you can get agencies to sit down and talk.
For Gerhards, the task is easier because he has control over Pennsylvania's
e-government money. Baheti has culled application development teams from
various agencies instead of building a separate e-government team. Kolodney
said agencies want to do the right thing; they just need to be assured that
they'll retain ownership over their legislative responsibilities and have
a comfortable environment to get to know each other and discuss the possibilities.
Baheti said that when the 20-plus agencies talked through a business
start-up application, it was the first time someone from each of those departments
had been in the same room.
"And it was amazing because they realized what the other departments
do and started talking and figuring out new ways to do things," he said.
Gerhards has seen the phenomenon. "Once they start trusting each other,
you see a lot of spin-off activity happening. Just that collaboration offers
us a lot of value."
All three states plan to invite county applications into the portals.
Washington will offer its templates to help out, while Pennsylvania will
provide the DSF technology. Baheti said California will probably not port
county applications into its centralized environments but that the look
and feel of the links to county transactions will be the same.
Gerhards said that although the vision of the future portal is clear,
the effort to be a customer-centric, one-stop government shop necessitates
"I think the bar just gets higher and higher as we figure out new and
better ways to improve the customer experience,'' he said.
Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached
Front end: Personalized site, comprehensive search engine, hot links
to dynamic customized sites and three-click maximum to information or service.
Back end: A single application development environment. Departments
develop applications and send them to the main portal.
Status: Launched in January. Will start porting applications over to
the central site over the next few months.
Front end: Plain-English search capability, list of e-government transactions,
hot links to simplified services such as "PA Open for Business," three-click
maximum to reach information, personalization and community information
such as online blue pages, yellow pages and weather forecasts.
Back end: Relies on easy-to-use toolkit called Dynamic Site Format,
which provides building block-like ability to plug in application components
such as credit card processing. Extensible Markup Language is used to hook
transactions to legacy systems.
Status: Launched in September. Several applications up and running.
Commonwealth plans to launch up to 35 new applications before June.
Front end: 24/7 client support function via e-mail or telephone, plain-English
search capability, navigation bars, hot links to services, two-click maximum
to get to information and services, and use of digital certificates for
applications that require identity.
Back end: Agencies hook into the portal using HTML links. Applications
are developed using templates and multidepartment solutions developed at
the Digital Government Applications Academy.
Status: Launched in 1998 but recently refreshed to make it more customer-friendly.
More than 300 applications but still improving them. Later this year will
make a push to incorporate county and city services.