GUEST OPINION: John Thomas Flynn

Should All Gov't Services Be Online?

John Thomas Flynn

"How many people are actually using the Internet to register their automobiles?" I asked David Lewis, chief information officer for the commonwealth of Massachusetts, at a meeting in his office last year. Dave and I go way back. He was the CIO of the Registry of Motor Vehicles when Gov. Bill Weld appointed me as Massachusetts' first chief information officer in 1994. We brought the Internet to state government in 1995, and Dave's Department of Motor Vehicles became the first in the country in 1996 to offer Web auto registrations.

After all these years, I was curious to find out how many citizens were taking advantage of the department's online service.

Hardly any at all, was Dave's answer.

The reasons for this surprising outcome should be heeded well by all CIOs, particularly in the public sector, where, unfortunately, the e-commerce strategy often can be summed up as, "If you build it, they will come."

Dave told me that after I followed Horace Greeley's advice and headed west to sunny Sacramento, the Weld and [current Gov. Paul] Cellucci administrations in Boston continued their re-invention of government. It seems their re-invention in this case had been precipitated by what can only be called a taxpayer's dream: envisioning a senior government official having to deal with the motor vehicle department.

Weld began to question the rationale of the government collecting a fee each year to register a car. He had a better idea, and it was as simple as it was elegant: When you buy your car, you register it for life, and since the majority of these transactions occur at a car dealership, the dealer takes care of the procedure.

The result: No need to register millions of cars year after year in Massachusetts. The number of people needing to use the Internet application was now negligible.

Dave told me that the development of the registry application was invaluable in terms of providing the commonwealth's information technology community with significant experience and lessons for the new e-government environment. But it taught another lesson: Simply automating business processes, even allowing interactive electronic processing over the Internet, was imprudent without re-evaluating those same government programs and business practices before exercising the IT wand.

This does not mean simply another round of business process re-engineering, though BPR still serves a useful purpose, particularly in the public sector. The examination of these processes should be initiated after a thorough re-examination of the rationale behind the government program itself. I call it government program rationalization, or GPR.

In Massachusetts, the jaundiced eye that was cast upon the state's requirement to re-register a car year after year also was applied to the state's other licensing and permitting systems, particularly occupational licensing requirements. The next time you want to see the length and breath of state and local government, check out their occupational licensing registries. It turned out about 800,000 citizens ? a quarter of the work force ? were required to obtain such a license, many of rather dubious value both to the government and consumer.

As Weld said at the time, "If I get a bad hair cut, I don't go back to the same barber; and I don't need a government agency to help me make that decision."

As a consequence of the Massachusetts GPR that was led by Ray Campbell in the governor's office, hundreds of occupational licensing fees were eliminated or reduced. That saved citizens millions of dollars and effectively reduced the size, scope, cost and intrusion of government.

The valuable experience Massachusetts gained before implementing its e-commerce strategy is too often disregarded in the name of progress toward e-service to the citizen. I have seen countless examples while in public service and in the private sector where blue-ribbon task forces are assembled, charged with identifying the "dirty dozen" most frequently used government services and then chart a strategy to put them online.

This is done without a hint as to whether the government program itself remains viable and necessary.

Simply building e-commerce sites for government services, and even co-locating them on government portals, is not enough. It's like paint over rust. What is needed is the one-two punch of GPR and BPR.

And who should lead this endeavor? Add this responsibility to the emerging role of the CIO in government.

John Thomas Flynn, former chief information officer for California and Massachusetts, is a private consultant in Sacramento, Calif. His e-mail address is JTF2001@aol.com.

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