North Carolina Embarks on Ambitious Portal Initiative
North Carolina Embarks on Ambitious Portal Initiative<@VM>Andersen Garners Two State Portals
By Lisa Terry, Contributing Writer
North Carolina is the latest to jump on the state e-government portal bandwagon. But more than just putting a pretty face on a collection of disparate agency systems, the state is positioning its new "North Carolina @ your service" Web portal as the front end of a fully integrated enterprise application foundation that crosses government agency lines.
The state announced June 5 that it had awarded contracts with three companies to develop and host the portal. Andersen Consulting, Chicago, will serve as the main contractor, with Yahoo, Santa Clara, Calif., acting as subcontractor for portal development, and BellSouth, Atlanta, serving as the hosting subcontractor.
In its first six-month term, the renewable contract with Andersen will not exceed $3.5 million, although other potential funding avenues are available if required.
In addition, the project's steering committee is recommending the state legislature allocate $4 million to enable state agencies to modify and integrate their applications for the Web.
"North Carolina is taking a holistic view of state government. This is right on the mark of what governments should be doing," said Stephen Rohleder, Andersen Consulting's managing partner, USA Government.
The new portal will capitalize on years of work by state officials to promote information sharing and commonality among its agencies' systems, said Rick Webb, state chief information officer. "In the early '80s, North Carolina was one of the first states to consolidate its data center and networks, the first state to put together a document for open architecture," he said.
An initial work group began sketching out a framework for the state's e-government approach in 1998, with a new steering committee made up of representatives of various state agencies formed earlier this year to helm the project.
Sharon Hayes, a manager within the North Carolina Office of Information and Technology Services and former deputy director at the state's Labor Department, has been named project office director.
Andersen and its subcontractors will perform the bulk of the portal development work, with the next version of the site expected in midsummer.
"Citizens told us they want to be two or three clicks away from anything," Webb said. "They want to get information quickly and move on. That mandated that we do things one time across the board, and we do it from a citizen-centric point of view."
For example, the state will have one e-commerce solution for credit card payments via the Web, through an as-yet-unnamed vendor, no matter which agency is processing the transaction. A common e-form will enable all state employees to submit expense reports online, regardless of agency.
In addition to employing a common supporting infrastructure, the site will maintain a consistent look and feel across agencies and processes.
"It's nice to have an attractive front end, but the back end integration needs to be done with existing systems," said Tom Davies, senior vice president at Current Analysis, a business intelligence and analysis firm in Sterling, Va. "It's a very challenging business integration to [link] systems across agency boundaries, to integrate databases across agency boundaries, to integrate business processes across boundaries and across state, local government and education, so it is seamless."
About 20 states have mounted portals so far, he noted, but "no one is at that point yet."
"This is really putting North Carolina at the forefront of using information technology to meet the needs of its citizens, like no other state is doing," said Rick Carlisle, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
"We are really trying to think creatively about how people use the Internet, how they interact with state government, and design things around what people want rather than around state agencies," he said. "We really want to place state government at the service of the user."
The project began with a new Web site (www.ncgov.com), which first will run concurrently with, then replace, the previous site (www.state.nc.us). Whereas the previous site simply linked visitors to separate home pages maintained by agencies, the new gateway organizes services according to a framework that includes four sub-portals.
Currently three are available online citizens, business and employees with a fourth, local government, planned.
With local governments having the option to link with the state portal, "this blurs the line of governance between state and local governments," Andersen's Rohleder said.
Recognizing that a long path lies between putting up a portal and achieving full cross-agency integration, the project's steering committee set up a five-step framework.
First is the ability to provide information, and second is the ability to make inquiries of agencies and receive replies, both missions the site already has achieved.
The third phase, now under way, enables constituents to conduct business with agencies via the Web; motor vehicle registration transactions, for example, will soon be available via the site.
In the fourth phase, agency systems will be integrated so they interact together. The final phase will achieve a "transformation of government," Webb said, with full front-end to back-end integration. "It's one thing to have a portal," he said. "It's another thing to have the applications relate to it."
Key objectives for North Carolina's digital government efforts as a whole include:
Taking a consistent and citizen-centric view to development.
Creating a shared vision for e-commerce among all agencies, including common business models and a shared technical infrastructure.
Establishing a standards-based approach to e-commerce, including standard mechanisms for e-payment, public key infrastructure security, X.12-based EDI, e-procurement, e-forms, and e-auctions.
Webb said the state is using a project office approach to portal development as a result of its successful use of such an office in its Y2K initiative, which came in $11 million under budget.
The e-government framework will also be modeled after private-sector Web sites, such as mynetscape and myyahoo, emphasizing user-friendliness, convenience and personalization.
Those attributes will be manifested, for example, by organizing site visits around life events: informing a citizen who just turned 18 about registering for the draft, registering to vote, and so on, or offering conveniences such as enabling a single payment for multiple ncgov.com transactions.
Key challenges in the project thus far, Webb said, have been assessing needs and the state of Web portals, determining a funding source for the project which may include transaction or convenience fees, direct funding and other models and securing multiagency buy-in.
"The way you do that is to show value. We want to improve the level of services," Webb said.
Davies at Current Analysis agreed, saying that the technical part is the easiest portion of portal projects.
"Most technical hurdles can be navigated," he said. It is the cultural and leadership issues that are the bigger challenges.
To ensure citizens can access ncgov.com's offerings, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt in April announced an initiative to deliver affordable, high-speed Internet access to all state residents within three years, via agreements with BellSouth Corp., Sprint Corp. and GTE Corp. Currently, fewer than 20 percent of North Carolina's households have Internet access, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.Andersen Consulting has taken two giant steps forward in the electronic government marketplace with recently announced contract wins in North Carolina and Wyoming, where Andersen was selected to build statewide portals.
"These wins are significant because of the breadth and depth of the portals," said Stephen Rohleder, managing partner for Andersen's USA Government practice.
While Chicago-based Andersen has portal contracts with individual federal and state agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Texas Workforce Commission, these latest wins are the company's first portals that will tie together the agencies and services of an entire state.
The North Carolina deal, announced June 5, is worth up to $3.5 million over the first six months, and includes options for additional work. Terms of the Wyoming contract, announced by state officials the same day, were not released.
The market leader in building state portals is National Information Consortium Inc. of Overland Park, Kan., with 11 state customers and a host individual agency customers at the federal, state and local level. But Andersen, IBM Corp. and other large systems integrators are preparing to challenge the much smaller NIC, which has just over 250 employees and had revenue of $57 million in 1999.
By contrast, Andersen has 5,000 employees and $8.9 billion in annual revenue, with about $1 billion coming from its government work. Andersen's government organization grew by 35 percent last year, Rohleder said.
He praised North Carolina, Wyoming and other governments that are taking the lead in e-government.
"They're inventing the rules and not afraid of retribution for inventing new things," Rohleder said.