E-gov misses local connection

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."

Scarce Resources

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 doing this."

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 host them.

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 overdone.

"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 requests.

"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 at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

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

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