Alliance launches permit portal

Nine cities in King County, Wash., have formed an e-government alliance enabling them to take advantage of information technology investments, share expertise and training, streamline and improve business processes, and deliver electronic services to constituents.

The first such service launched by the King County e-Gov Alliance (www.ecitygov.net) is a unified electronic permit portal — a one-stop shop for area building contractors to apply and pay for various permits across jurisdictional boundaries (www.mybuildingpermit.com).

"I would characterize the initial [nine] cities as venture capitalists," said Toni Cramer, chief information officer for Bellevue, Wash., and co-chairman of the alliance, which was formally established in April. "They bought an idea and they put a lot of faith and trust in the staff to be able to actually work out the details and bring this on. It's pretty entrepreneurial for cities to do something like this."

In addition to Bellevue, which hosts the online permit application, participating cities include Bothell, Kenmore, Kirkland, Issaquah, Mercer Island, Sammamish, Snoqualmie and Woodinville. The nine cities have a combined population of 300,000.

Such an alliance isn't unprecedented. The federal government is involved in a project called Government Without Boundaries with several states and cities to share information and transactional services. And in many other regions, law enforcement agencies from different jurisdictions are using technology to share information.

A smart cities initiative in southern California produced a similar permitting application, Cramer said, but the participating cities run the application separately.

The King County alliance began nearly two years ago when an idea was presented at a meeting of the county's city managers that the municipalities should collaborate on a strategic plan for electronic service delivery, thereby saving money, she said.

The alliance formed a governing board composed of the city managers of each participating city. Within the e-permit project, for example, a number of "intercity teams" were created to map out the financial, marketing, business process, building standards and technology issues.

"The biggest challenge has been the business process alignment," Cramer said. Borrowing a colleague's analogy, she said that "everybody's got their kitchen arranged in a different way in the neighborhood and if everybody tried to get together and agree on a way to arrange it, it's not rocket science, but it's complicated."

Another major benefit has been sharing expertise and training. Cramer said people in smaller jurisdictions work on projects collaboratively; otherwise they'd never be able to afford it.

The alliance has three membership levels. The basic membership allows cities to pay a nominal fee to "stay connected" and participate in things such as joint purchasing. At the subscriber level, cities pay a yearly fee so they can participate in an individual application as it is rolled out. But most cities in the alliance are full partners — a "co-ownership model," she said.

"Bellevue is an owner of this centralized infrastructure," Cramer said. "The alliance actually owns the server, they own the intellectual property rights for the applications, they buy staff time from Bellevue and they share in all of the equity in any potential revenues. And the cost split is based on...population of a city."

Future alliance applications include:

* A parks and recreation module for scheduling facilities and reservations.

* A utility billing service.

* A component for paying parking tickets.

* A module to handle and track citizen service requests.

* An internal consolidated online job component.

* A centralized site for requests for proposals and bids.

The alliance received assistance from Microsoft Corp., which donated $75,000 in software and also provided consulting, Cramer said. Software and services included Commerce Server 2000, SQL Server 2000, BizTalk Server 2000, Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Internet Information Server 5.0. She said Microsoft provided training to multiple city groups on the configuration on a couple of its products.

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