Citizens Begin Experiencing the E-Gov Revolution
Citizens Begin Experiencing the E-Gov Revolution<@VM>Local Efficiencies<@VM>E-Gov Spreads Out<@VM>The Federal Side<@VM>Making E-Gov Real
By James Schultz
Outdated paper files gathering dust, indifferent bureaucrats, a frustrated populace queuing up for interminable waits for necessary information and documents. Once, this may have been the way citizens viewed government and its ability ? or inability ? to deliver essential services.
But e-government advocates believe an electronic tidal wave is about to sweep away the old stereotypes, leaving in their place sleek, responsive federal, state and local agencies and departments modeled on the nanosecond philosophy of private-sector e-tailing.
G2C, or government to citizens, is the new mantra in e-government circles. Relying on Internet portals, e-procurement, call centers, automated e-mail programs and electronic transactions of every stripe, government is poised to reinvent itself in unprecedented ways that should satisfy even the most demanding and time-starved taxpayer.
"This is virtually a revolution," said Donna Morea, executive vice president for the state and local government group at American Management Systems Inc., a Fairfax, Va., information technology consulting company. "Demand has come from the rising expectations of business and citizens, as well as from government officials themselves.
"People want access anytime, anywhere, with the convenience of Amazon.com. It's a new perspective," she said.
Fueling that perspective in the United States is public spending on information technology, according to analyst Christopher Baum, vice president for electronic government at the GartnerGroup, a research firm in Stamford, Conn. IT spending by federal, state and local governments is projected to grow in 2003 to $109 billion from 1999's $84.8 billion.
Worldwide, public-sector IT spending will balloon to $247 billion by 2003, up from $185.8 billion in 1999. Although the annual rate of IT growth in the United States is 6.5 percent, Baum said, the developing world and Asian nations on the Pacific Rim should experience double-digit increases.
"I could make the argument that every dollar spent by government for the next 15 years on IT in the United States will end up being applied to e-government," Baum said. "There's a snowballing effect as government services are put online. There will be some spectacular failures and some spectacular successes. Assuming no tremendous change either culturally or economically over the next 50 years, e-government will happen."
Within government, the switch to electronic commerce brings with it efficiencies of scale.
Buyers at federal agencies that are modeling purchase practices and e-commerce sites after the private sector are beginning to order directly from vendors from secure intranets, increasing product availability, cutting costs and dramatically reducing order times.
Requests for proposals, contracts, purchase orders and other critical documents are routinely available via computer, reducing paperwork submission times from weeks to days and, in some cases, to hours or minutes.
Citizens seeking information on a host of federal services, from income tax filing to environmental regulations, are surfing governmental Web sites as never before. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, is encouraging
e-filing of federal tax returns, and it should eventually be possible to monitor and even direct Social Security accounts on a personal computer.
Where the real rubber meets the road, however, is on the local level, where officials and citizens alike have much to gain from the transition to e-government.
Pennsylvania's Department of Revenue has witnessed more efficient delivery of services and satisfied taxpayers as its payoff from e-government.
The department administers the state lottery and 18 different state taxes, with collections exceeding $19 billion. It is also responsible for the returns of 6 million individual taxpayers and thousands of business taxpayers.
In 1996, when the department created its Web site, it received on average about five e-mail inquiries per day. Most departmental communication with taxpayers was handled over the telephone by a central call center. Each e-mail was reviewed by one individual, who either answered the inquiry or manually forwarded the message to someone else.
But problems brewed as e-mail volume grew exponentially. By 1999, e-mails were flooding into the department at an average rate of 125 per day, 200-plus during peak periods. By year's end, the Taxpayer Service and Information Center, the main call center for the department, responded to 17,091 e-mails, nearly five times the amount received the previous year. (The number for this year has grown to 19,788 as of mid-June.)
The laborious review procedure, designed for the pre-Internet age, proved a major bottleneck. Constituents would usually wait a week or more for response to a given message.
The solution, aided by technology-services provider GTSI Corp. in Chantilly, Va., was the department's adoption of a message center: an intelligent, skills-based routing and searchable response library system to automatically sort and prioritize e-mails. Today, receipt-of-inquiry responses are automatically sent out, with customized answers following.
The department's bimonthly newsletter, which contains any tax-law or other significant changes, is also routinely e-mailed to constituents. Repeated questions pose no problem because from desktop computers, agents now can track a taxpayer's e-mail history at the click of a mouse and e-mail copies of the original correspondence.
Judy Rohrer, manager of the Taxpayer Service and Information Center, said installation of the message center has increased e-mail processing productivity by an estimated 55 percent. Internally, the department is working more effectively, as agents' time, especially during tax season, is directed to near-real-time response to pressing inquires. Less amenable to measurement, but perhaps more important, has been citizen reaction.
"It's not just that we've improved customer service, but from a managerial point of view we're also able to do quality control over the entire process, as far as productivity and oversight are concerned," she said. "We have a wall of letters ? we call it the Wall of Fame ? where citizens have written back commending us for these efforts. Some even say it makes them feel good to pay taxes. For taxpayers to take the time to write is a pretty impressive thing."
Like other states and federal agencies, Pennsylvania is now developing a single portal, a one-stop shop for all statewide services. In additional to frequently requested information on matters such as weather, road conditions, tourism and health, state portals seem likely to be the future destinations for those wishing to make property tax payments, obtain parking and toll passes, apply for building permits, and apply for hunting, fishing, camping and business licenses.
"We're going as far as we can with electronic means," Rohrer said. "We're striving very hard to make that happen. All citizens want to do is complete a transaction, without necessarily knowing exactly what department or departments will handle it. They just want to get it done."In one guise or another, e-government is on the move in nearly all 50 states. Those near technology centers, or with concentrations of software expertise, such as Washington, Virginia and California, are among the leaders in offering electronic access to constituents for information and required transactions, such as vehicle registrations. Other states have devised their own unique innovations.
In 1996, Kentucky launched the "Empower Kentucky" initiative, for which a key component was christened the Simplified Access Project. The project's stated aim is to provide quick and easy access to information about commonwealth programs and services, help citizens identify those services, and then provide access to organizations offering such services.
As part of Simplified Access, Kentucky selected AMS to develop and implement the Kentucky Online Guide to Services, the first Internet-based, comprehensive listing of the commonwealth's 25,000 service providers. AMS created and implemented an electronic "guide to services" that includes an online compendium of available services and providers throughout the entire state.
Kentucky citizens today are able to answer a targeted set of simple questions to identify appropriate services, and then save the outcome of their searches (which include locator maps) on a state Web site in a personalized folder icon for later access and printing.
The online guide can also be used by caseworkers, services providers, or by private individuals through Web access terminals available in local schools, libraries and some government offices.
"People that otherwise wouldn't be using the Internet are," said Morea at AMS. "We know of people logging on in the middle of the night from police stations. This demonstrates the digital divide is beginning to evaporate. I feel very strongly that the Internet will be the great equalizer."
In Arizona, IBM Corp. developed, hosts and manages the ServiceArizona Web site and interactive voice response system for that state's Motor Vehicles Department. Online processing saves roughly 75 percent of the cost of an over-the-counter transaction: $1.60 compared with $6.60.
ServiceArizona processes more than 12 percent of Arizona's renewal traffic each month, collecting more than $6 million in fees and taxes monthly on behalf of the state. That equates to an annual savings of more than $1.5 million in the department's operations budget, according to IBM. Residents also have the option of renewing registrations in either English or Spanish using touch-tone telephones.
In Maryland, IBM has helped that state's Department of Assessments and Taxation develop Internet-based applications to assist users in researching critical information about businesses and property for corporate charters, security-interest filings and letters of good standing.
In New York, where IBM is based in Armonk, the company has assisted the Governor's Office of Regulatory Reform to provide an individualized, comprehensive online list of business licenses and permits needed to start or expand a business in the state.
"The pioneers that have been doing this for two or three years are starting to reap the benefits," said Janet Caldow, director of IBM's Institute for Electronic Government. "But everyone is surprised by the speed and momentum of e-government initiatives. States, cities and federal agencies are looking to make things easier for citizens."In terms of convenience and efficiency, citizens may benefit directly from ramped-up local and state e-government projects.
Indirectly, taxpayers stand to gain from federal agencies' move to automation and e-commerce because of the internal savings generated, in the form of reduced paperwork, volume discounts, faster ship-receive times and general improvements to operations.
The Financial Management Service (FMS), one of 12 bureaus of the Treasury Department, is the federal government's cash manager. The service issues more than 850 million payments each year
and manages the collection of federal
FMS is responsible for developing and implementing secure and efficient methods to manage the federal government's cash flows.
Federal Liaison Services Inc. of Dallas managed the development of the FMS Fedtax II, a system that allows federal agencies to make federal tax payments via the Internet.
Approximately $40 billion of the $1.5 trillion in Treasury's annual collections are handled by the system, with volume expected to increase significantly as new agencies are brought online.
More than 230 agencies already use the system. Fedtax II meets the requirements of multiple federal agencies, while the government's need for extensive payroll-tax automation, including data collection, due-date assignments, payment generation, production of returns and electronic filing, is realized.
In a smaller magnitude, one federal installation is seeing a different benefit from the use of e-commerce at the government level.
In southeastern Virginia, the Energy Department's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, known as Jefferson Laboratory or JLab, is a basic research laboratory built to probe the nucleus of the atom to learn more about the quark structure of matter. A 47-university consortium known as the Southeastern Universities Research Association manages the $600 million facility for the department.
Because of the nature of its research, the lab boasts a unique array of specialized equipment, including about 2,200 magnets ranging from the size of a fist to that of a small car, required to steer and focus the electron beam at the accelerator's heart. It also boasts virtual armies of outside contractors and an ongoing need for thousands of made-to-order parts. That puts a premium on fulfilling orders as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
To streamline product procurement, JLab managers so far have loaded 10 vendor catalogs with pictures and prices on a secure intranet, instantly available to authorized users.
Specialty products that are available include vacuum-supply components, industrial fasteners, gas cylinders, clean-room supplies, valves and fittings, scientific and lab supplies, metals and fiber optics and a host of other items. Thus far, 1.6 million line items are available for Internet order.
The advantages, according to purchasing manager Danny Lloyd are that the lab is "getting volume discounts and we don't have to go out and shop multiple places. You look up a part, check the price, press one button, order and it's done." The on-the-spot ordering saves at least six days in comparison with the conventional paper-based system, he said.
"Competition is fierce among the
e-vendors. It means savings for us," Lloyd said. "Loading catalogs is the wave of the future for all federal agencies. We can track anything our people order. We can track how much we're spending, who's spending what. We're definitely saving money and time."
Tied to the online product availability is a credit care program provided by the Energy Department that began at the laboratory in October 1995 with 23 cardholders and $200,000 in annual charges. Annual purchases now exceed $3 million per year, with 150 cardholders onsite.
Lloyd said that, because most credit-card buys do not require a purchase order, JLab saves as much as $50 on every transaction.
His ultimate goal is to make even credit-card shopping obsolete by expanding online product availability and enabling employees to directly order on the lab's intranet ordering site. There, they could buy such routine items as small tools, shop supplies, software and hardware, electronics and office supplies.
"The whole federal government is going toward e-commerce," Lloyd said. "I truly believe it. From a business standpoint it makes a lot of sense. There are more controls over the entire procurement process."For all its promise, e-government will remain more the province of the initiated than a John Q. Public affair if citizens cannot cross the so-called digital divide with relative ease.
In addition, it is not clear whether the little-known but increasingly deployed "transaction model" of e-government software development will survive the political litmus test, once voters realize that user fees are essentially payments to third-party vendors designed to offset up-front work in developing e-gov applications.
In short, the road to e-government may not be as broad and easy as supporters desire.
"One the biggest problems government will have is implementing this," said Mark Smolenski, a GartnerGroup analyst and specialist on consumer use of the Internet to access government information and services. "Will government itself build sites and portals, or will it farm out those tasks to companies, who will build and maintain them? How exactly does government go online? I think we'll see a mixed model," he said.
At the very least, e-gov will be good for a public-relations shot in the arm. According to IBM's Caldow, e-gov "will do a heck of a lot for government's image. There's so much that government does, like the FAA's organization of airline schedules, that doesn't appear in a direct way."
Public recognition and appreciation of the essential role government plays in American life will ultimately help accelerate the adoption of e-government and even more efficient delivery of services, Caldow said.
Irene Kropp, chief information officer for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said in the final analysis, convenience is the byproduct of efficiency in the move to e-government.
In her state, as processes are streamlined and paper replaced by computer keystrokes, everyone wins, from government to citizens. Realistically, adopting the process may be deliberate, but is nonetheless inescapable, she said.
"It will take a while to fully realize the benefits of moving to e-government," she said. "People won't embrace Internet applications right away. We'll have to deal with two systems ? electronic and paper.
"We're not going to save money early on," Kropp said. "There will be an
adjustment. But e-government is an inevitability."