Point-and-Click Government

The push to make government operate 24 hours a day is opening doors for integrators

It's 4:30 in the afternoon, and you've been standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles for the last hour. It's the third line you've been in today. Suddenly, the clerk slides a plastic shield across the counter announcing that the DMV is now closed. A little voice inside you is shouting, "My tax dollars should provide for better service than this!"

U.S. citizens have long held their silent rage in check, often doing little more than complaining to their friends about government's alleged ineptitude. But as the use of technology inside the commercial world continues to spread, so do the frustrations of dealing with government.

"Why do you have the ability to bank 24 hours a day and yet you can't deal with our government in that fashion? In fact, the government probably operates 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on a good day," said George Newstrom, corporate vice president and group executive of Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s Government Services Group. Today, Newstrom believes the advantages enjoyed by consumers in the commercial sector are becoming a powerful catalyst inside government, and the high-tech movement ? often labeled "service to the citizen" ? has already begun to reshape how certain governments operate.

"The government has led the way with its development of the Internet and chip technology, and it has led the way with advances in satellite communication, digital switches and systems integration. Now I think as we enter the age of the network, the government will step into the forefront again by providing access," said Dennie Welsh, general manager of IBM Global Services and chairman of Integrated Systems Solutions Corp.

"Federal and state governments will play a leadership role in adopting [electronic] strategies because of their size and scale, along with the open systems phenomenon now being propelled by the Internet," said Welsh.

There will be many great opportunities for companies that want to help state and local governments use technology to improve service and efficiency while saving money, said Jerry Mechling, director of the program on Strategic Computing and Telecommunications with the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"There is no real way to quantify those opportunities because we don't know about all of them," said Mechling. And of the ones we do know about, some won't be as profitable as anticipated, he said.

According to estimates from Input, a market research and consulting company based in Mountain View, Calif., new contract spending for service to the citizen contracts annually will be in the $400 million to $750 million range over the next two years.

Companies that provide communications services and equipment will have the biggest opportunities, speculated Barbara Flaherty of Input's Vienna, Va., office.

Agencies ? at the federal, state and local level ? are doing terrific things with phone service, said Greg Woods, team leader for information technology and customer service with Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review.

Telefile, Massachusetts' touch-tone telephone tax filing system that allows users to file a return in eight minutes, recently won the 1996 Federation of Tax Administrators Award for Outstanding Technology Applications. The system reduces processing costs by 80 percent while also reducing the time it takes for customers to receive their refunds to four days.

The Texas Employment Commission is using a voice response system to file continuing unemployment claims.

Additionally, there is "an absolute explosion in new ways to serve customers via the Internet," said Woods.

For example, Indiana's Bureau of Motor Vehicles plans to soon let state residents renew automobile and truck registrations over the World Wide Web. The state could use the Internet to collect tax form submissions, applications for waste handling licenses or for child-care licenses.

Other companies that could benefit from the service to the citizen movement are those that offer network management, database management, systems management or data warehousing services, said Flaherty. Government is starting to look at technology as investments, not just purchases, she said.

"People don't want to figure out how to use government," government needs to figure out how to meet the needs of citizens ? their customers, said Merv Forney, president of Electronic Data Systems' state and local government division based in Herndon, Va.

Forney, like so many other Americans, is speaking at a personal level, not as a corporate executive. He recently moved to Virginia from California and had to deal with regulations governing everything from personal property tax to getting a new driver's license.

"My experience [with the Virginia government and local agencies] was neutral to negative," Forney said. You go into an office, take a number, and sit and wait, not really sure if you've brought the right information, or even if you're in the right office.

To DMV's credit, once Forney reached the counter, he was able to take care of his driver's license and his car's title and tags at the same time, and receive them immediately, without having to stand in three separate lines.

Yet even with its one-stop shopping approach, Virginia's DMV can't compare to California's licensing process.

The West Coast giant includes a digital image of a person's face, fingerprints and signature on the magnetic stripe on the back of their license. When it comes time for the license to be renewed, people have the option of sending in a check and just having DMV call up their old information and issue a new card. Drivers can do this for two consecutive renewals, and thus can avoid DMV lines for 12 years.

People have a fast-food mentality. They want to go to one place and receive many different services whenever it is convenient, said Martin Cole, managing partner for Andersen Consulting's Eastern Region government practice.

The entire service to the citizen concept is very much here to stay. People are focused on fast and easy, he said. That becomes a way of life that would be difficult to change, according to Cole.

Businesses have learned that service is the most valued component today ? that's where value is added and that's where to invest, said EDS' Forney. Cellular companies are giving away phones, but they're not giving away services.

Service stations are even buying information technology for their gas pumps so customers don't have to walk a few feet to pay. Government is getting out of the business of serving itself because people are demanding more, he said.

The bottom line, Flaherty said, is that ? by definition ? the mission of all government agencies is to provide service to someone.

The Origins Of Citizens as customers

Many people credit the entire "service to the citizen" movement to the Clinton administration's National Performance Review, a nationwide movement to improve how government operates. Still, others argue the concept predates NPR and that it was imported from Europe, in particular from the United Kingdom.

In reality, no one is sure where the term originated. One of the earliest uses was at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Today, even school officials are a little fuzzy on the term's origin.

Yet, NPR and "service to the citizen" both involve putting people first, so there is a natural tie-in between the two, said Jerry Mechling, director of the program on Strategic Computing and Telecommunications with the Kennedy School.

Vice President Al Gore felt that the concept of better meeting people's needs was broader than the word "citizen" implied. The Customs Department, for example, works with many people who are not U.S. citizens. Thus, the catchy phrase "service to the citizen" was re-engineered into government providing better customer service.

It is only recently that the term service to the citizen gained its original momentum, and in some circles, people still prefer the words "improving customer service."

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