A twist on e-government

Iowa chief information officer Richard Varn takes a somewhat contrary view

of e-government. His explanation sounds like a case of splitting hairs,

but the ramifications in Iowa could be dramatic.

E-government, Varn says, should be a true agent of the public, meaning

that technology should offer citizens better access to their government

rather than enabling government agencies to better broadcast their messages.

E-government, he feels, is all about providing services to the public.

He'll get the chance to show what he means. Gov. Tom Vilsack announced

Jan. 28 that Iowa would build a Web portal to provide the public with one-stop,

around-the-clock access to government services. It eventually will enable

people to access all government services and transact business using a single

password and user ID and a one-time statement of payment information.

That sounds relatively straightforward. But if Varn's vision is carried

through, the Iowa Portal also will allow licensed third parties to do business

with the government on behalf of individuals, similar to the way professional

firms can now file their clients' taxes electronically to the IRS.

"What we are really doing is building a customer service system that

will enable citizens to do all of these things," Varn said. "They'll be

able to get assistance for any of the services that are offered through

the portal, initially online and then we'll extend that to call centers

and eventually to physical locations such as government offices or libraries."

The great thing about the plan for the Iowa Portal, he said, is that

it will use much of the infrastructure that already exists, or is in the

process of being built for existing digital government projects.0

The customer identification system is mostly in place already, for example,

and a "payment engine" is being installed that will accept credit card payments,

e-checks and other forms of electronic payments for services offered through

the portal.

The state also is installing a forms management system that will support

customized forms for portal services, so that users will only have to register

once and not have to re-enter their information when they use the system

again for other applications.

Because the government has already paid for these features, Iowa will

not have to duplicate them or charge for their use in excess of their cost.

Any existing or future state investment in digital government applications

and infrastructure from pooled technology funds such as block grants for

e-government initiatives or other sources also will support the portal.

"The thing we will have to build from scratch is a customer relationship

management system," Varn said. "We will be looking for off-the-shelf solutions

for this, but I'm not sure of they are out there. The back-end systems need

to be integrated [with the portal services], and my suspicion is that we'll

have to do a lot of that ourselves."

The Iowa Portal will differ from other government service delivery projects

by being a private entity, linked to Iowa's Information Technology Department

through a performance contract or other business relationship.

In that respect it will be able to borrow funds, or it could use an

external service provider to finance new applications for delivery through

the portal. It will establish strategic alliances with organizations that

are experienced in integrating online public-sector services.

The service providers will reimburse the state for maintenance and operational

costs for use of the government's infrastructure where needed. Consequently,

applications will be chosen depending on whether anticipated revenue through

fees will cover delivery of service.

The hard part, Varn admitted, will be getting Iowa state agencies to

buy into the customer service concept.

"Other people have had this idea before, but the problem has been government

IT shops and other agencies who have said no to the idea," he said. "But

the [digital government] infrastructure doesn't care what or how you run

things over it. So the need became getting the decision made to build the

portal to create the applications for citizens to do what they can't do

now, and at some point this becomes the way you do business. But we needed

that first catalyst."

Early applications available on the Iowa Portal are expected to be things

such as renewing driver's licenses and buying fishing and hunting licenses.

Future services could include tax-related transactions, paying traffic and

parking tickets, completing employment applications, and filing for benefits

and refunds.

Citizens should be able to begin accessing services through the portal

within six months, Varn said. How well the state has been able to integrate

the services with government back-end systems should be clearer by the end

of this year.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be

reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

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

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