E-gov misses local connection
- By Brian Robinson
- Mar 12, 2002
Interactive services, online transactions and extensive portals are the
golden future of e-government. But aside from a few well-financed states
and cities, the present is decidedly different.
Strapped budgets, harried staff and stiff competition for resources
leave many governments, especially among the cities and counties, with a
muddle of planned, half-planned and ad hoc programs.
Even the best-endowed municipalities can hardly be said to be forging
ahead. A Brown University study last year of the 70 largest cities in the
United States found that only 13 percent offered any kind of executable
online services. Despite its being the most popular offering, only 30 sites
provided any way for people to pay parking tickets online.
"One of the prime virtues of the Web is its capacity for interactivity,
such as features that put citizens in control of online information," wrote
Darrell West, director of Brown's Taubman Center for Public Policy, and
the principal author of the study. "However, most sites do not help citizens
tailor the information to their particular interests or needs."
That point is not lost on many city and county executives. They know
their Web sites have to become more capable, but it's not necessarily a
matter of simply deciding to move in that direction. They have to think
in terms of tradeoffs.
Cincinnati, for example, has a Web site (www.rcc.org)
that Mark Gissiner, acting manager of the city's Office of Municipal Investigation,
readily admits has been "stagnant" for some years. Ultimately, city officials
envision the site providing timely information and transactional services
that will meet citizens' needs and help the city reduce its personnel costs.
The city should have a portal in place well before the end of the year
that is focused on providing government information online what some
Web experts call "brochure-ware" with plans to offer more transactional
services within four or five years.
"But I do have some trepidation with people's ability to do business
24/7 with the city government," Gissiner said. "When people come down here
to file permits or do other business, they also go and do some shopping,
or go for a meal, so there's a feeling we could lose significant commerce
Manchester, N.H., is in many ways a classic example of a small city
or municipality that finds itself with just too many conflicts to make many
guarantees about building a Web site.
Its initial Web presence was started four years ago by a department
that handled some of the city's procurements, as a way of listing business
opportunities up for bid. Between then and now, other departments built
their own Web sites, and even picked their own Web service providers to
The city's information services department now has the job of pulling
all of this together into one site based on "constituent services" aimed
at distinct resident, business, government and leisure activities.
"So we have a plan, and we've put the first steps in place," said Diane
Prew, Manchester's director of information services. "But we haven't attached
any time frame to it. We think people are behind it, but when you are faced
with all of the decisions you have to make about schools, Sept. 11 issues
and so on, it's a question of where to allocate scarce resources. And advanced
Web features do come at a cost."
Listening to these and other IT professionals, it's easy enough to pick
up on their dilemma.
Perhaps taking the lead from federal and state governments, where customer
service is the phrase of the day and transactional services are the preferred
way to provide it, managers in small- and medium-size cities and counties
almost feel obliged to stress the same things.
Information is King
But, given the much smaller budgets and staff they have to accomplish
Web strategies with, perhaps it's asking too much for local governments
to push transactional services to the same extent.
Greg Curtin thinks they shouldn't even have to. The chief executive
of Civic Resource Group (CRG), an e-government solutions provider based
in Santa Monica, Calif., believes the emphasis on transactions has been
"Information is still king on the Internet and will be for a long time
to come," he said. "People will flock to good and accessible information,
and doing information well [on the Web] is difficult enough. But will they
flock to paying parking tickets online? That's still a question that has
to be answered."
In a study last year of 224 cities in the U.S. with a population of
more than 100,000, CRG found that only a small fraction were conducting
transactions online. The company concluded that while U.S. cities are making
strides in moving information online, they were ill-prepared to deal with
the more complex challenges of full-blown e-government.
Recently deployed Web sites would seem to bear out Curtin's view. Westchester
County, N.Y., for example, was all but forced to make its Web site into
the county's major information outlet for news about the government. The
New York Times is the county's local paper, but it does very little reporting
on the area. And there is no local TV news.
The Westchester County site (www.westchestergov.com)
provides a large range of news and information, including video presentations
of government meetings and other events. In 2001, according to Norm Jacknis,
Westchester's chief information officer, the site had 300,000 unique visitors,
and there only are about 600,000 adult residents in the county.
Westchester is taking what it sees as its informational mandate even
further. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, county leaders created an "alternative"
home page with print and video information on emergencies and what people
should do when one occurs. The alternative page can instantly replace the
regular home page when the occasion requires it.
Distinct pressure, Curtin said, is building for all governments to boost
their Web presence. Despite the recession, he said, CRG has seen "barely
an impact" on the number of requests for proposals and other e-government
"Governments are starting to realize they need to think more creatively
about the Web and the Internet," Curtin said. "But the fact is, it's still
a very foreign thing to most municipalities and agencies."
For a closer look at some particular challenges, follow the links below:
Portland, Ore: Seeking common ground
Manchester, N.H.: Help from the outside
Who cares about e-government?
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.