Agencies Shift to E-Gov Using Power of Portals
Agencies Shift to E-Gov Using Power of Portals<@VM>A Single Info Source<@VM>A 'Vortal' Future
by James Schultz
For any revolution to succeed, ordinary citizens must be persuaded that the cause is worthy of their participation. For the upheaval in e-government now picking up steam, that persuasion may arrive in the form of a suite of powerful enabling technologies that will encourage taxpayers to make easy, quick use of the pending array of e-services envisioned by local, state and federal agencies.
And in order to deliver on e-government's promise, officials are accelerating public-sector investment in next-generation systems. The numbers back up the assessment.
According to Christopher Baum, vice president for electronic government at market research firm GartnerGroup in Stamford, Conn., information technology spending in the United States on hardware purchased for use by governments should reach $21 billion by 2003, up from $18 billion in 1999.
By 2003, Baum expects that public-
sector-related software buying will surpass hardware expenditures for the first time. He projected $22 billion in such software expenditures that year, an increase of $7 billion over the 1999 figure.
Those companies that support agencies with e-government-related products and services also should do well: Public-sector external services spending on IT should grow substantially, from $18.5 billion in 1999 to $29.5 billion by 2003, according to GartnerGroup.
"There's a lot of money to be made out there," Baum said. "There's a whole new breed of portal-services company that will make money not only on the transaction model, but also selling banner ads and having links to commercial products."
Many observers believe that electronic portals ? one-stop, Web-based gateways that present multiple options for citizens to act on ? will be the primary means of, first, establishing e-government and, second, of guaranteeing reliable deployment of government-related e-services.
Spurring portal development is the fact that consumers are increasingly becoming at ease using the Internet.
That accompanies the public desire to reduce from using a multitude of Web sites to a handful, or even one site, that must be navigated in order to obtain information or services.
Not everything, however, will be amenable to keyboard explorations through cyberspace.
"E-government isn't a light switch," said Harry Clarke, director and general manager of federal operations for BMC Software Inc., based in Houston. "It's a spectrum. At one end you get instantaneously what you're looking for. At the other end there are still some things, like getting a passport, that will still take time."
Nevertheless, portals do appear to be first among the e-technologies of choice to power the move to e-government.
According to an IBM Corp. white paper on portal development and evolution, portals' chief advantage is the creation of a community of utility: They provide a personalized and adaptive interface for individuals to discover and track applications and content while interacting with other like-minded folk.
Furthermore, portals provide a means
of passively or actively unearthing
expertise and delivering it directly to
desktop computers, without the need for human go-betweens ? at least, other than those who devise the portal or who make themselves available for queries or consultancy.
According to the IBM report: "The concept of stovepipe applications are a thing of the past ... Users want consolidated access to their important contacts, applications and content. Organizations want easier control to design their desktop in a layout that suits them ... Portals [will] have a membership-services layer for user authentication, single log-on and credential mapping. Users demand the highest level of security, but the least amount of annoyance."
The more portals are used, the report said, the more they will develop a characteristic look and feel, tailored to meet emerging interests and affinities. And although portals may look slick and be easy on the eye, they nonetheless must exhibit robust capability.
They must be able to access and display simultaneously multiple, heterogeneous data stores, including relational databases, multidimensional databases, document management systems, e-mail systems, Web servers, news feeds, and various file systems and servers that include audio, video and archived still-image capabilities. In other words, the whole package.
"Portals enable a client to see one single source of information, when in reality we may be amalgamating 20 to 30 sources on the back side," said Bob Lewis, president and chief operating officer of Enterworks Inc., an Ashburn, Va., company that specializes in delivery of online services in supply-chain management, health care and criminal justice.
Enterworks is among a burgeoning army of providers of B2G, or business-to-government, offering combinations of software and hardware to enable governments to electronically interact via portals with internal and external constituencies.
Among the portals that Enterworks has provided to customers is an internal site for retrieving medically related clinical, financial and administrative reports; a public site where constituents can renew licenses, pay taxes and take care of other civic business; an extranet site that allows subcontractors to review build-to-suit packages and submit bids online; and a private, secured site that allows intelligence analysts to review reports that combine sensitive data from multiple sources.
The company's flagship product is the Enterworks Suite, which includes what the company calls a process integrator that tracks organizations' best practices, policies, and procedures while automatically handling exceptions and errors, and all the while recording all transactions.
The second component of the suite is Enterworks' content integrator, which provides on-demand access to more than 70 validated data sources, including archived "legacy" data, in a single, secure, personalized view.
Both are, in essence, software modules geared to the management of e-government information and delivery of
Allowing the client to see a single source of information "makes life much easier," Lewis said. "If you want a different view of the work, you simply point and click."
For the state of Virginia, Enterworks has developed what the company calls a Vital Information Portal Supporting System, a virtual database that allows for the deliberate linking of financial, medical and administrative data into one easy-to-view portal. Virginia government officials use the portal to monitor and track key health-care information and trends.
"It's one thing to simply make a portal," Lewis said. "The more challenging thing is to harness all the information sources, combine them and present them effectively."
Effective e-government presentation also demands reliability, both for portals and the software and hardware systems that support them.
BMC Software, a Forbes 500 company and a member of the S&P 500 that
projects fiscal 2000 revenue to exceed $1.7 billion, offers two primary software products, Patrol and Mainview, to assess and improve systemwide robustness.
Although service interruptions will occur from time to time, said BMC's Clarke, the trick is to be ready to respond to and repair any damage.
To achieve a high level of e-gov efficiency, agencies should engage in what Clarke describes as "desired state management," wherein success is defined by overlapping redundancy and systems that are nearly 100 percent reliable 100 percent of the time.
"There are clearly thresholds for performance, availability and recoverability that organizations, companies and agencies must meet," he said. "Ideally you want to predict what systems problems you may have to proactively solve them. If you press enter, and you don't get anything, you are not a satisfied customer."
BMC's Patrol software allows its customers the ability to pose "what if" questions, providing a precise view of how business changes will affect application and system performance. That feature, the company asserted in promotional literature, "eliminates guesswork and allows solutions to be tested and deployed with the least disruption possible to daily business."
According to its makers, Patrol's predictive modeling capabilities can be applied to virtually any business-critical application or database.
A quasi-intelligent trio of linked programs that makes up the company's second primary offering, Mainview, is designed to boost server performance by conducting continual analyses of hardware and software performance.
Despite the alluring promise of technology enhancements, rapid deployment of e-government may ultimately be hampered by unresolved issues, of which the most prominent is protecting privileged information.
Taken together with unresolved disquiet over network security and integrity, privacy looks to be a major hurdle that must be cleared if e-government is to gain widespread public acceptance.
"Privacy is a concern," said Tom Siekman, senior vice president for technology at GovConnect.com. "It's part of the reason that, certainly in the public sector, things move more slowly. Tax returns, human services, employment services are all areas where, if sensitive information is revealed, that would be a significant breach of security."
To prosper, up-and-coming portals such as GovConnect.com will be counting on resolving any potential problems. The portal's parent company, just formed in January when Renaissance Government Solutions split off its electronic government division, is based in Cincinnati with operations in Exeter, N.H., and Waltham, Mass., as well as call centers in various locations.
Counting both past and current incarnations, GovConnect products and services have been used by governments in 34 states.
GovConnect bills itself as the leading provider of electronic access solutions for government agencies.
Since inception, GovConnect claims to have helped governments automate and process approximately 97 million transactions and collect more than $20 billion in revenue.
GovConnect facilitates transactions through a multimedia communications platform known as AccessNet. The platform allows access and information processing in multiple forms, including Web-based access for online transaction and processing.
The platform also boasts traditional touch-tone telephone access, with Interactive Voice Response, automated phone menu systems; advanced telephone access, using natural-language voice recognition; e-mail; and automated fax integration.
These applications can be installed onsite at customer agencies or can be hosted by GovConnect through its application service provider (ASP) services.
As an ASP, GovConnect enables government agencies to bring their electronic processes and applications to constituencies more quickly by eliminating the need to develop the infrastructure and staffing required for an in-house program.
The GovConnect servers also support full scalability and regular updating of applications, which allows agencies to grow at the speed dictated by their programs.
The company said that, by hosting applications and resources on GovConnect's secure servers, government agencies can dramatically reduce the costs associated with infrastructure and system development and upgrading, as well as the challenges of maintaining expensive IT-related staffing.
Launched in May, the GovConnect Internet portal (www.govconnect.com) provides consumers and businesses with one location online where they can access information and conduct business with thousands of government agencies and services at the state, local and federal levels.
This site includes general government information, current events and news, government-specific search engines, links to government sites and "Ask an Expert" search capability to send personalized inquiries.
To help government agencies deliver enhanced customer service across an array of constituencies, GovConnect can also provide call center support, with customer service representatives available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
GovConnect's Siekman had one piece of advice: Don't rule out the telephone as a tool of choice as e-government matures. Despite Internet-enabling technology advances, human psychology remains fully in play, he said, and will affect the ways e-government is accepted or not.
"Interactive voice and telephony will continue to play a major role," he said. "There will be further consolidation of telephone, in terms of voice recognition and natural language.
"Vortals ? voice portals ? will put a more accessible front end on interactions. Most people will then be able to find electronic services more comfortable and inviting," he said.
No matter what innovations are introduced or leading-edge applications pushed, today's e-government exotica will likely seem mundane in a few months or a few years, according to technology observers.
The "e" in e-government eventually may be dropped, considered just another semantic casualty of the high-technology age.
As with previous breakthroughs that seemed almost miraculous in their day ? the printing press, antibiotics, the automobile and rocket launches ? e-government may be fated to become virtually humdrum.
"E-government will spawn a whole new set of relationships with application service providers, inside and outside government," predicted BMC's Clarke. "What we call e-government now will just become the next set of applications businesses and governments will use to routinely operate.
"These e-applications we're talking about today will be the standards of tomorrow," he said. "And they'll provide unprecedented service to the warfighter and citizen alike."