Wheels of Progress Slow for Virtual Governments
States determine the best way to set up shop in the cyberworld
Electronic commerce ? in addition to its many commercial applications ? is today being promoted as a citizen enabler, a force capable of fostering interaction between government and the people it serves, even those at the most remote locations.
Two years ago, kiosk terminals that provide easy access to government data became a kind of media darling when they promised to enable states to set up virtual governments. At that time, 38 of the 50 states had implemented a kiosk pilot project or were planning to do so.
Today, the Internet is being promoted as virtual government's new express lane, and many integrators are now rushing to develop solutions to satisfy the market's burgeoning high-tech appetite. Already, integrators from BDM International Inc., McLean, Va., to Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas, have expanded their Internet and intranet offerings, while citing government as a key target market.
Customers want to work with integrators that can perform both intranet and Internet services. They won't bid those network services as a separate package, said Len Pomata, president of PRC Inc., McLean, Va.
For some people, the Internet has a ways to go before it can truly host a virtual government. Government must develop a presence in a medium that the population can access, said Martin Cole, managing partner for Andersen Consulting's Eastern Region government practice. Many people do not have computers, so phones and televisions offer wider access to information. Kiosks also can act as an intermediate step to give people access, he said.
"Bricks and mortar have to go ? new [government] buildings with a sole purpose can no longer be justified," said Cole.
Certain transactions lend themselves better to one form of communications infrastructure than others, said Cole.
Simple transactions, such as entering numbers for a tax return, may be best performed over phone lines. More complex transactions may best be viewed on a computer screen.
The best locations for those computers will vary depending on the purpose and intended audience. People who are trying to locate information on health assistance may find terminals in hospitals more convenient than one in a shopping mall.
Common places to deploy terminals, whether they are independent kiosk networks or computers with Internet capability, include shopping malls, libraries, hospitals, government offices and schools.
People no longer want to stand in long lines or take a day off from work just to deal with their government. They want to be able to access a variety of services from one central location, which increasingly is turning out to be an electronic site.
People want to go to a common storefront and find all the information they need. One of the advantages of the Internet is that it can tie together a diverse set of organizations behind one location, said Jerry Mechling, director of Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector within the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
While that theory increasingly is being discussed, it is still rarely put into practice. Technology is not the barrier, people are, Cole said. Individual agencies view their missions in narrow terms, and it's difficult to build momentum for broad projects.
Two reasons why governments will have problems setting up virtual offices are turf boundaries and money, agreed Mechling.
There is a paradox that technology can cut through ? people want better service, but they don't want to pay taxes, said Merv Forney, president of EDS' state and local division, based in Herndon, Va.
There have been some attempts to promote government interaction. Pennsylvania, New York and Texas all have developed multiagency kiosk networks, said John Poland, senior vice president of North Communications, Marina del Rey, Calif. North has deployed kiosk networks in several states and was the vendor on the InfoCalifornia kiosk network that received positive press, but which the legislature declined to fund once it left the pilot stage.
People already perceive government as being too expensive, said Mechling. There is a danger that the public will not like the new technology.
It took years before people trusted and started to use automatic teller machines on a widespread basis, he said. And who knows what technological evolution will happen in the next two years.
A Sampling of State Web Pages