Government Searches for Holy Grail of Online Services: The Integrated Portal

Government Searches for Holy Grail of Online Services: The Integrated Portal<@VM>But What Does It Mean?<@VM>David Allied With Goliath<@VM>Look Ma, No Hassle

Government agencies are scrambling to create what many see as the ideal in online services: a portal that cuts across agencies, providing a single place for citizens to interact with the government.

Citizens don't have to know which agencies are providing the services; the portal will give them access via a single password to the entire government. Taxes, vehicle registrations, a hunting license or anything else will all be found in one place.

"The overriding principle is to improve customer service," said Carolyn Whitmer, a market research consultant for Federal Sources Inc., a research firm in McLean, Va. "They simply log on and everything is right at their fingertips."

That's the dream, she said, but the reality is that most of today's so-called portals simply offer links to other Web pages.

A true portal, according to industry officials, is an integrated site, one that cuts across back-end processes and seamlessly provides both information from multiple agencies and transaction capabilities. Citizens have access to all government services, including permitting, licensing, taxes and tax filing.

Several states are taking steps toward this integrated model, a fact that, not surprisingly, bodes well for systems integrators.

In early January, California unveiled MyCalifornia, a site that officials tout as more advanced than any other state portal, thanks to an application development environment that uses centralized transaction engines and centralized databases.

North Carolina's ncgov.com portal, although powered by Yahoo PortalBuilder and at present mostly information based, has a link to the Department of Motor Vehicles' Web site and has a foundation in place for integration with the department's online transactions.

Meanwhile, many states, including Arizona, Delaware, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Vermont, have released requests for proposals for help in developing statewide integrated portals.

"The time for the portal for portal's sake is really past," said Cheryl Janey, vice president in the state and local solutions group at American Management Systems Inc., Fairfax, Va. "Government officials, just like business officials, are realizing that an e-face on something only goes so far in improving the effectiveness of the organization. The key is interoperability, making services available interagencywide and intersystemwide, and government is looking to systems integrators to help them achieve that."

While portals are the ultimate goal, most states and localities are in the early stages of implementing electronic government transaction-based initiatives. At first, governments build dual processes, one for the online system and one for the traditional system, in hope of simply getting an e-presence up and running.

The "low-hanging fruit" most easily plucked include applications such as vehicle registration and driver's license renewal, filing property taxes and renewing permits and professional licenses.

"Once the transaction volumes on the online systems reach a key threshold amount, officials are suddenly faced with that integration challenge of, 'How do I get the data back and forth and make sure the citizen who did his driver's license renewal over the Web is registered in the traditional database?' " said Rishi Sood, a principal analyst for Gartner Dataquest, an information technology research firm in Mountain View, Calif. "That's where a lot of agencies are at right now."

It would seem that building integrated portals while also integrating standalone, vertical online applications would be a redundant, time- and money-wasting step. In fact, the two efforts are complementary, said Arun Baheti, director of e-government for the state of California.

Baheti pointed to the recently unveiled On-line Professional Licensing Project (OPLP) that allows members of the California Board of Registered Nursing to renew their licenses, update continuing education information and addresses and pay renewal fees online. AMS has already integrated the application with the back-end processes of the consumer affairs and general services departments. AMS also is hosting the application and plans to add other licensed groups and more functionality.

Although the OPLP system can be reached through the MyCalifornia portal as a static link, the application eventually will be moved over into the portal environment and hosted there.

"We're waiting until we're more comfortable with the portal and have ensured that the environment is stable, but we could port that code to our system right now if we wanted to," Baheti said.

Likewise, in North Carolina, officials from Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting), a global management and technology consulting organization based in Chicago, are phasing in transactional systems.

Rob Berton, managing partner for the firm's East Coast State and Local Group, said his team got the site up and running in just 45 days and has recently added a North Carolina Store capability, which allows citizens to purchase merchandise from certain state museums and agencies. At present, however, the portal only contains a static link to the DMV's online vehicle registration and license plate renewal system.

"From the start, our goal was to set up the foundation and then provide new functionality in releases," Berton said. "Integrating transaction systems is more of a heavy lift, but we are planning to have some online in the near future."

The DMV system is one of them. Although built and integrated by another vendor, the application can be easily transferred to the portal environment. "It's got a common link, a common interface and a common place to go, so the state has complete flexibility in terms of how they want to move forward," Berton said.

The California and North Carolina experiences offer an important lesson on how integrators should approach major integrated portals: Take it slow.

"A lot of IT professionals, particularly networking folks, like to have everything neat and tidy by trying to have everything absolutely integrated from the start," said Baheti. "The reality is that's just not going to happen in this instance. We need to take these intermediary steps, a rational, cautious way to start offering services quickly."

Berton agreed. "It's a marathon, not a 100-yard dash," he said. "You've got to create the bedrock, the foundation to really have something that's lasting and can continue to be enhanced and built upon."

Whether integrating a single vertical application across agencies or bringing applications together into a portal, vendors will face similar challenges, both cultural and, to a lesser degree, technological.

The most difficult aspect, said Mark Badger, Internet strategist for the public sector at Cisco Systems Inc., a network solutions company in San Jose, Calif., is facilitating cooperation across agency lines.

"The idea of getting true integration across government so you're really using one application that's going to update everyone's name and address, for example, is hard to achieve when people are just beginning to discover that to really maximize technology, they need to use it to bring more cross-departmental sharing," he said.

AMS is tackling that problem by creating virtual teams of vendor and government employees. Janey said integrators must bring communication and collaboration skills and capabilities to the table to help break down the barriers that have grown in the government because of vertical and stovepipe applications, service provision and funding models.

"Old habits are hard to break," she said. "Integrators play a key role in helping states and localities break those habits and approach it differently."

Another challenge is making the site citizen-centric ? presenting the portal in such a way that the citizen really isn't faced with the bureaucracy of government. The North Carolina portal, for example, is intentions-based, meaning that it asks constituents ? be they citizens, business owners or employees ? what their end goal is, what they want to do.

Another possibility for citizens is the "life event" model, which takes people through the portal according to the latest significant occasion in life, such as marriage, birth of a child, renewal of a driver's license and so forth.

Mark Cleverley, a consultant within the government industry division at IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., said integrators need to be prepared to pull in other interfaces besides the Web, including systems at traditional brick-and-mortar service centers.

"You've got to start thinking of a portal as a concept, not just a Web site," he said. "And that means expanding your notions to incorporate not just Web, but voice and pervasive devices such as wireless technologies. Unlike business, government doesn't choose its customers. There's an economic divide there, a language divide, and so forth. As such, you've got to have a range of options for citizens."

For integrators, that also means gearing up to bring customer relationship management technologies into the fold. Such applications help push out information to citizens or at least make the citizen more aware of services that are available online.Integrated Portal: A starting or anchor Web site for an organization that seamlessly connects users to related services and information. On the back end, an integrated portal houses all information and applications in a single, scalable environment.

E-Government: The process of conducting government over the Internet. This includes providing citizen access to traditional services, such as filing taxes, renewing licenses, paying permit fees and enabling citizens to provide information to and collect information from the government.Last year, a group of dot-com companies specializing in facilitating direct government-to-citizen services garnered a large share of the media spotlight and more than a little attention from state and local officials.

A year later, however, those same new-fangled firms have found that, all short-term success aside, their best hope for long-term survival comes by aligning themselves with traditional systems integrators and consulting firms.

For example, ezGov of Atlanta has signed formal partnership agreements with Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas, and IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y. Carta Inc., an electronic government firm in Sacramento, Calif., recently teamed up with Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash.

"Credibility is a huge issue" in the state and local market, said Ed Trimble, president and chief executive officer of ezGov. "I think it took us about as long to go from zero to three customers as it took us to go from three to 65 customers. Governments are very risk averse, and that makes it very difficult for a young player to break into the business, no matter how exciting the product."

With IBM and EDS helping to shoulder the burden, the 150-employee ezGov may now concentrate on improving its suite of products, which include install-and-go payment processing solutions for government services such as parking tickets, property taxes and utility bills, and then, as an option, hosting those applications via a service provider model.

The new partnerships are already paying off, Trimble said. The firm is working with IBM on a major initiative in Miami-Dade County and with EDS on a new online payment processing project in Massachusetts.

The benefits to the start-up companies are pretty compelling. Besides long-term, established relationships and financial and personnel resources, the traditional firms provide the kind of integration and consulting services required to take these vertical, single-agency, online transaction systems to the next level of e-government.

"For governments to truly realize all the efficiencies of e-government, our solutions have to be integrated with the back-end systems," Trimble said. "Having IBM and EDS as formal partners gives us a leg up in doing that."

Rishi Sood, a principal analyst for Gartner Dataquest, an information technology research firm in Mountain View, Calif., said the day of the intermediary firm ? one that takes over the government's direct contact with the citizen ? is over.

"They've kind of toned down the message of being the middle man between government and citizens," he said. "They began to understand the importance of developing a relationship with government."

He added that dot-coms' difficult early period in the marketplace speaks to the most traditional fact about state and local government.

"This is a relationship-based industry," Sood said. "Thus, they'll turn first to those long-standing, steady vendors that they feel most comfortable with."




Long lines and bureaucratic red tape are quickly going the way of the typewriter as electronic government slowly inches toward reality in the state and local government market. A survey conducted by GartnerGroup, an IT market research firm in Stamford, Conn., asked state and local government officials which citizen services they expected to offer via Web application within the next few years.
  
Filing Taxes
Vehicle Registration/Driver License Renewal
Permits
Professional licenses
Voting
75 percent
60 percent
55 percent
55 percent
40 percent


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