States' E-Exuberance Needs a Reality Check

Thomas R. Davies

By Thomas R. Davies

If the increasing number of e-government-related press announcements coming out of the states is any indication, the governors are very proud of their progress. But are the states really making true progress, as demonstrated by improved services, lower costs and greater citizen involvement? Or are they following the footsteps of Internet companies and using public relations to gain recognition and boost the value of their "stock."

At times it appears, even to impartial observers, that the states are vigorously competing to be the first to get press announcements out the door. Unfortunately, in the rush, many initiatives are launched with few, if any, publicly stated measurable goals or outcomes. Consequently, it is often difficult to discern exactly what progress the states are making.

Although e-gov is sometimes compared favorably to other critical state priorities, there is a paucity of credible e-gov metrics. An example is the growing list of "beauty contests" where state Web sites compete more on appearances than on results. This contrasts against the superb effort the states made last year with their highly visible reporting on year 2000 progress.

Managing e-gov by press announcements can be a double-edged sword, as some governors are discovering. Such announcements can raise expectations, sometimes unrealistically so. They can also set in motion a chain reaction where critical stakeholders, not given a chance to get on board before the train leaves the station, feel threatened and react accordingly. And they can create an illusion that the states are making more progress than they actually are.

As with any new wave of innovation, strong optimism is to be expected. But the current exuberance with e-gov is unlikely to last much longer. The hard pick-and-shovel work required to produce results is just now getting under way and will bring a dose of reality.

For example, some states such as Tennessee are beginning to build high-speed digital networks to support bandwidth on demand. These investments will enable them to bring critical voice, video and data services via the Internet to even the most remote cities and towns. It is hard to imagine how citizens can take advantage of e-gov without such networks.

Other states such as Michigan are beginning to put in place the internal organizations and leadership needed to bring focus to e-gov on a statewide basis. Leadership is one critical ingredient needed to ensure that e-gov goes beyond mere window dressing. Many states will benefit from e-gov external advisory boards comprised of executives from industry, academia and government.

The states that moved first to the Web are now adopting a more realistic approach. Maryland and Arizona, for example, were among the first to implement Web-based applications supporting licensing and motor vehicle registrations.

Others such as Georgia and Kansas are sharing insights on building and operating statewide portals. Largely due to these "first movers," best practices are now emerging, such as how to create partnerships with the private sector that encourage investment and risk sharing.

The next e-gov wave in the states is likely to result in significantly greater financial investments and will lead to the deployment of industrial-strength e-gov solutions. California has embarked on a course to create a One-Stop e-Business Center. It promises to bring together dozens of regulatory processes that cut across not only multiple state agencies but also levels of government.

One of the greatest e-gov challenges facing the states is making government truly customer-centric. Building Web-enabled front ends to legacy applications, the approach many states have taken so far, will not cut it much longer. Fundamentally changing the citizen's experience with state government will necessitate a fresh look at the culture of state government.

Core assumptions about when, how, by whom and where services get delivered need to be challenged. And the mission-critical processes and applications that make up a state's business and IT architecture will need overhauling.

The states have much at stake. Not only are they competing with one another for the loyalty of their citizens and businesses, but they are also competing with private-sector Web-based businesses. These competing sites are unencumbered by many of the constraints on government, such as the inability to readily accept advertising revenue. They are also free of requirements imposed by rigid government procurement and personnel practices.

By any measure, the e-gov opportunity is growing by leaps and bounds. In the not-too-distant future, e-gov will be the norm and all state government IT expenditures will support e-gov.

For companies that have been on the sidelines reading the press announcements, it's not too late to join the game. The states will need help delivering on the promise of e-gov.

Thomas Davies is senior vice president at Current Analysis, a next-generation business intelligence and analysis company in Sterling, Va. His e-mail address is tdavies@currentanalysis.com.

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