Milwaukee finds allies in e-gov

Milwaukee officials are trying an innovative approach to building an e-government

system by partnering with local businesses to get such things as Web site

design and Web-based marketing at reduced costs.

A general announcement published this year by the city proposing the

formation of public/private partnerships pointed out that any agreement

involving $5,000 or more in payments required a competitive request for

proposal process, but anything below that amount could be accommodated through

"less formal" decision-making.

"We put that in to encourage firms to think of other benefits they can

get out of this," said Kimberly Pratt, the community information systems

coordinator in Milwaukee's Information Technology Management Division. "The

partners we've signed up for so far are doing a lot of pro bono work for

us, and in return, we give them an attribution on our Web site, and they

can use us a reference for other work they do."

The city had tried the traditional outsourcing route, Pratt said, and

interviewed several larger firms with the idea of having them handle all

of Milwaukee's e-government business. But, even though the firms would have

done the upfront work for free, the city itself still would have had to

deal with the issue of interfacing the Web front end with the government's

back-end systems.

"And whichever way we looked at it, it seemed that they did indeed end

up controlling the system," Pratt said. "If they decided they didn't like

the set up or the costs involved, they could walk away, and the city would

be left without an e-government system."

The current solution calls for the city's IT staff to build and maintain

the core elements of the system, including the interfaces and such things

as the central databases. The businesses provide applications and services,

such as language translation, that are not essential to the core nature

of the system.

In this arrangement, if things do not work well, the city can easily

sign up with another company or drop a particular application or service

entirely, Pratt said.

"This does seem a more preferable approach, since we get to keep control

of the system while putting the whole thing together for lower cost," she

said. "And no matter what functions we give out to private firms, we will

still need that fundamental staff expertise."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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