Evolving doors

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 person thinks."

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 a snap.

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 up.

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 applications.

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 the portal.

"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 Forms 101.

"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."

The Future

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 constant evolution.

"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 at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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MyCalifornia

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.

PA PowerPort

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.

AccessWashington

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.

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