Listen Up, State Leaders: E-Commerce Demands Careful Coordination

Listen Up, State Leaders: E-Commerce Demands Careful Coordination

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer

States are making great strides in putting their services online, but citizens could end up having to search through a hodgepodge of government Web sites unless their state takes steps to centrally coordinate plentiful electronic commerce initiatives.

In many states, industry and public officials said, much of the e-commerce activity is emanating from the bottom up at government agencies and departments. And while individual departments' enthusiastic embrace of e-commerce is viewed as refreshing, their uncoordinated efforts run the risk of creating Web sites that are inconsistent and redundant, officials said.

"The overarching concern is how to pull it all together," said Don Heiman, the chief information technology officer for Kansas. "If everyone goes in his own direction, it fractures the state."

States must develop an Internet strategy similar to what many corporations are doing in the private sector, said Tom Davies, a senior vice president for Internet Services at Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va.

Take social services, an area that could include different programs such as child welfare, child support, unemployment insurance and Medicaid, he said. If each department or agency handling these programs developed its own Web site, citizens would encounter multiple, fragmented sites that could hinder them, rather than help them in getting the services they need.

"You want to use the power of the Web to have integrated services," he said. "Effective e-commerce applications require cross-program collaboration."

Kansas is one state that has minimized these problems, largely because it established the Information Network of Kansas to promote and coordinate e-commerce initiatives, said Heiman. The main goal of the organization, known as INK, is to provide commercial businesses and private citizens with electronic access to government services and information. Established in 1990, INK is run by a 10-member board that includes representatives from the public and private sectors.

The state's information network is managed by the Kansas Information Consortium, an arrangement that has many advantages for the state, Heiman said. First, INK presents a single Internet location for citizen users of government services.

In addition, because INK packages and sells public information to businesses and citizens, it generates revenue of about $8 million to $10 million annually for the state, said Heiman.

Subscribers can obtain court records, motor vehicle records and real estate and property information through INK. Law firms, for example, can subscribe to Lobbyist-in-a-Box, a service that monitors a list of bills and receives updated status reports on those bills quickly and easily.

Although an agency occasionally will develop an e-commerce application on its own, there are many incentives for them to use INK. The main one is that INK pays the agencies for the information and data that is sold to the public. Approximately 80 percent of the revenue recovered by INK goes back to the state agencies, said Heiman.

In addition, agencies that use INK receive free staff support from the Kansas Information Consortium to develop e-commerce applications.

The Kansas Information Consortium is run by the National Information Consortium, Overland Park, Kan., which provides similar network services to a handful of other states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Utah and Virginia.

Another state trying to get its arms around e-commerce projects is Utah. The legislature in June established the Electronic Commerce Council to coordinate and guide e-commerce projects in the state.

"E-commerce is our No. 1 priority after Y2K," said David Moon, the state's chief information officer.

Utah hired the National Information Consortium in May to manage the state's electronic gateway, called E-Utah, which goes live this month with e-commerce applications.

As in Kansas, the National Information Consortium will be funded by transactional revenue, one of the reasons why Utah selected the company.

Utah agencies have a lot of information on the Web but few transactions, said Moon. He hopes that the E-Utah project will help push more government services onto the Internet.

Both Heiman and Moon want their states' Web sites to focus on service rather than bureaucracy. In Kansas, for example, people must go to the Bureau of Vital Statistics within the Department of Health and Environment to obtain marriage licenses. Heiman said people visiting the state's Web site should not be required to hunt through the various departments to find the one handling marriage licenses.

"People want to see the services in terms they can understand, irrespective of the agency that provides the services," he said.

To achieve these kinds of goals, governors and their CIOs must set an agenda for e-commerce initiatives, industry and government officials said.

John Flynn, a former state CIO and now a vice president with Litton-PRC Inc., McLean, Va., said CIOs still have time to begin coordinating the various agency activities.

The direction must come from the top, said Bob Samson, vice president of sales for the Americas, public sector, for IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y. "At the end of the day, it's not about technology, it about leadership and vision," he said.

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