Governors Will Portal Their Wares at Winter Meeting

Governors Will Portal Their Wares at Winter Meeting

John Thomasian

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer

Creating Internet portals to transform how governments deliver services to citizens and business will top the technology agenda when gubernatorial leaders gather for a winter meeting of the National Governors' Association this week in Washington.

As more states move to put services online, governors face the challenge of coordinating a multitude of e-government activities and creating a single face for people and organizations that want to transact business with government agencies and departments over the Internet.

"We need to examine how we can reinvent government to take advantage of information technologies that give us a government that's open for business 24 hours, seven days a week," said John Thomasian, director of the NGA's Center for Best Practices.

Kicking off the governors' Feb. 26-29 conference is an IT task force meeting that will explore this and questions related to the theme of "Building a Customer-Focused Enterprise," said Thomasian. Republican Gov. Jim Geringer of Wyoming and Democratic Gov. Gary Locke of Washington co-chair that task force.

The meeting, which will also examine information technology as the driving force behind the new economy, comes at a time when many IT companies are developing new approaches to building portals for state and local governments. An Internet portal is the single, main entry point through which citizens and businesses gain access to electronic government.

IBM Corp. announced Feb. 16 its strategy for building e-government portals. The Armonk, N.Y.-based company will provide governments with a portfolio of services, from initial consulting to installation of e-government applications, such as vehicle registration and business license renewal, said Todd Ramsey, general manager of IBM global government industry.

"Over the past few years, we built the very first transaction applications. These have grown into an extensive and proven portfolio of e-government applications," said Ramsey.

Unisys Corp. will unveil a new service next month that it is calling a "community portal." The Blue Bell, Pa.-based company plans to create a Web site that would serve as the central portal not only for a government, but also for the surrounding businesses, schools and community.

Other smaller companies such as ezgovcom, govWorks Inc., and the National Information Consortium are offering self-funded e-government solutions. These companies provide the online applications to governments for free and charge a transaction fee to businesses and individuals that use their online services.

The National Information Consortium of Overland Park, Kan., has been in business since 1992, and now serves one city and 11 state customers, including Arkansas, Georgia, Utah, and Virginia. "We have hundreds if not thousands of applications that we can leverage across all our government partners," said Joseph Nemelka, executive vice president for market development.

One of the biggest challenges for governments is integrating the new e-government applications with their back office systems, industry officials said. State governments, for example, could have more than 1,000 services online, rather than just the handful that exist in most states today. These applications will have to be integrated behind the portal that citizens or businesses see as a single government entity.

"Citizens don't need to know what department actually processes the transaction," said Ramsey. A citizen, for example, could renew his driver's license at the state government portal, while, in the background, the citizen's fees and data are updated and transferred to and from systems and databases within the Department of Motor Vehicles and other relevant agencies.

"The back office integration is where the real value is created for citizens," said Thomas Davies, senior vice president for Current Analysis Inc., a market research company based in Sterling, Va. But the difference between the current generation of simple, informative Web sites and more complicated, integrated government portals of tomorrow is like "the difference between putting a fresh coat of paint on the front of a building vs. knocking down the walls and redoing the interior."

The speed of renovation depends on many factors, such as how quickly governments can change laws and policies that make e-government possible, said Nemelka. This might include making digital signatures legally binding or accepting credit card payments for government services.

The new portal approaches offered by IBM and Unisys show that the larger systems integrators, like their smaller competitors, are willing to experiment with novel approaches in the emerging market for e-government solutions.

"The NIC partnerships in Virginia, Kansas and other states are making good progress, but making states truly customer centered as opposed to simply customer focused is a marathon, not a sprint," said Davies.

Whatever business model proves most viable, government and industry officials agree that e-government requires more than just making services available on a Web page. Governments themselves will be transformed.

A society's institutions are built around the tools its people work with, said Richard Varn, chief information officer for Iowa, where the governor is proposing to spend $12 million in fiscal 2001 to build portal applications for the state. As society moves from paper-based tools to digital tools, "we will remake the way government works at its core because technology is remaking the way society works at its core," he said.

Consequently, government officials should consider the broader, socioeconomic implications of e-government, such as instituting digital democracy or strengthening the local economy, said Janet Caldow, director of IBM's Institute for Electronic Government in Washington. "Don't get so caught up with citizen services that you miss the other pieces of these changes," she said.

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