States show feds the way

Federal agencies would certainly welcome an independent source of funding to improve their Web sites. State governments have found such a source, and the feds may want to copy the state model.

Twelve states — Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia — have established agreements with private companies to operate the states' official Web sites.

What is unusual about these Web portals is that they operate at no cost to the states through public/private partnership arrangements. Unlike federal agencies, these states expend no appropriated funds and assign no government personnel to run their e-government services.

Each state has an agreement with the company that governs how the site will be run. Each passed legislation and established a board of directors to set policy and oversee the site.

The novelty of these arrangements comes in the financing. Ninety-five percent or more of the information available on the Web sites is free to the public. The sites raise the revenues to pay the private companies through regulated charges for what they call premium services.

Premium services are specialized, value-added e-government services. Many are online licensing applications, but some are purely information services. For example, Indiana offers BidWatch, an e-mail service that notifies vendors of state procurement opportunities.

Virginia and other states offer the Lobbyist-in-a-Box Web-based bill tracking. State agencies and private citizens pay to subscribe to Lobbyist-in-a-Box. In other cases, state agencies undertake certain database searches for a fee.

The states can operate this way because they have adopted a slightly different philosophy from the feds when it comes to charging for government information. Federal agencies generally shy away from charging the public anything for information services.

The states, by contrast, appear to believe that it is entirely reasonable to charge the public modest fees for targeted e-government services when doing so will avoid spending state funds. They target those services that primarily serve commercial interests and are above and beyond what the public may reasonably expect the government to do.

As a result, everyone has access to free information services about the proceedings of their state legislatures. But if you want that information sliced and diced in special ways to serve your interests as a lobbyist, the state will make you pay a couple of hundred dollars per year.

This sounds eminently reasonable, so long as there are checks on the state's profit motives. My take is that the states' arrangements are carefully drawn to ensure appropriate checks. They also make very good sense to taxpayers.

Could it be that these state Web sites render better e-government services to the public than federal sites and at no public cost?

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected].


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