Agencies outsource self-service

Looking to gain benefits but avoid commitments, some agencies are hiring application service providers (ASPs) to operate their self-service e-government applications rather than building their own.

The ASP option offers one clear advantage: It quells the concern about potential costs, said Esteban Kolsky, a senior research analyst at Gartner Inc. An agency can show "exactly how much the service will cost...[and] even make it a line item in the budget."

However, outsourcing raises security and privacy concerns, and many agencies will be "very reticent to outsource" without strict security assurances, said Charlie Rabie, vice president of development at Aspect Communications Corp., which sells customer call-center solutions.

Given those concerns, most of the government programs are limited in scope.

The Social Security Administration, for example, has hired RightNow Technologies Inc. to handle its application for answering users' frequently asked questions.

"They manage it, but we control the content," said Tony Trenkle, deputy associate commissioner of SSA's Electronic Services.

The National Park Service hired Beltsville, Md.-based Spherix Inc. (formerly Biospherics Inc.) to manage its online reservations system, said Jolene Johnson, a park service program manager.

The program has reduced call-center traffic and given park officials advanced reservation information that has helped them plan their staffing levels, she said.

On a different scale, the Navy hired Jeeves Solutions, the enterprise software division of Ask Jeeves Inc., to operate the Ask the Chief feature on its Web site.

The application, which went live in June on the service's Distance Support Web site (anchordesk.navy.mil), was designed to give Navy personnel one tool for answers to technical, medical and quality-of-life questions, according to Lynn Kohl, business process manager for Distance Support.

The service tapped Jeeves Solutions to take advantage of the company's track record with large, well-known commercial customers, Kohl said. The company's clients include Ford Motor Co. and British Telecom.

Jeeves Solutions has provided an application that can sort through published Web data and zero in on the "authoritative answers," Kohl said, adding that Jeeves Analytics tools have helped identify gaps in the Navy's knowledge base.

Despite this success, security concerns that arose in the wake of last September's terrorist attacks have prompted the Navy "to look for solutions that can be brought in-house," she said, noting that the JeevesOne suite is among the possible solutions.

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