Presto, chango -- it's transformation time

Thousands of jurisdictions now have a Web presence, but how many have taken advantage of the opportunity to transform the way citizens interact with government?

Vanity pages, infomarts and transaction machines are increasingly complex stages of this new online medium of governance. Let's look at each one and explore its impact and value.

The first stage of being Internet-savvy is simply having a Web page. The "vanity page" — the first and simplest entry into the Net world — typically features a picture of city hall or the county courthouse, photos of supervisors and council members proudly smiling, and phone numbers to call (between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, of course).

Next on the evolution scale is the infomart. Want information? Step right up and get it 24/7! Whether people are looking for governmental files or rosters of their kids' baseball teams, such a Web site can be a treasure trove of information. But be careful lest people get excited and want to use the information on the Web to actually change a record or take an action. The infomart dispenses information, but cannot listen and change anything in their lives.

Then we have the transaction machine — to pay a ticket, register for an arts class, react to a notice, etc. The transaction machine can offer the user practical tools with which to conduct business with government. The government has the opportunity to levy a transaction or convenience fee, thereby reducing overall costs and making it possible to enlist private partners and launch the government onto the high road in the Information Age.

So after governments preen their feathers in front of a global audience, after they inform and transact, what if citizens still want more? Well, there is one last rocket stage when the engine afterburners really kick into a superb, intergalactic, high-octane orbit: e-government.

And that is when the transformational portal comes into play.

What does "transformational" mean? Many governments are excited about the Web's ability to offer forms online. Want citizens to let us know when their addresses change? Register for soccer? Pay property taxes through a bank? Well, there are forms for everything, and they can be downloaded from the Web.

But what do people do with a form after they get it? Fill out information they have probably given the government countless times before, then fax or e-mail the form to a government database or employee.

That employee then takes the information from the form and updates a file, and slowly the citizen's real goal is reached. A citizen's desire is never to fill out a form but to get something done. And that is the point of transformation: Instead of replicating the processes of the past and forcing people to get forms from the Web, why not permit them to actually get into the process and do the action themselves?

Here's an example. Let's use registering for a baseball team. The old way involves letting someone know a person's name, address, age, interest and desire to pay the registration fee (check included?). Each of those elements must be "processed" before desire becomes reality.

Fast forward to a transformed process. Eliminate the person handling the request and forming the roster. Put the entire roster and a team management system online, and permit people to go online, peruse the teams, decide which one they want to join and presto — a transaction is born (do I hear credit card jingles?).

If we can scale that height, if we can let residents do the work, we will have released our own staffs to meet other needs of the community and, at the same time, have given citizens an immense feeling of satisfaction.

Are we there? A recent survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association and Public Technology Inc. shows that almost one-third of 1,900 local government respondents are deep into transformational strategies today. That is good. Even better will be when you transform your own environment. Yes, you! Are you listening? Are you transforming yet?

Toregas is president of Public Technology Inc., a nonprofit technology research, development and commercialization organization for local government. Results of the ICMA/PTI survey are available online at www.pti.org.

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