Breakout Municipalities Use Online Technology To Cut Costs

A growing number of governments are launching Web-based initiatives to improve communication, trim costs and streamline work.

When residents of Alexandria, Va., require a business license or want to check tax records, there’s no need to wait in a long line. If someone needs to pay a parking ticket or wishes to apply for a job, there’s no need to trudge over to city offices. At the click of a mouse, residents of the city of 135,000 can tackle an array of tasks—and stay current on news and events.

Like a growing number of state, county and city agencies, Alexandria is replacing bricks with clicks and crumpling paper with pixels. Since the city introduced an e-government initiative in the mid-1990s, it has grown and expanded to become an integral link for residents, businesses, tourists, students and others.

“The goal is to make services accessible to those that need them,” observes Craig Fifer, e-government manager. “An e-government initiative benefits everyone involved.”

Today, state and local governments are increasingly venturing online and embracing electronic tools to improve the way they operate. They’re finding that these e-government initiatives improve communication, trim costs and streamline work. Putting information, forms, services and e-commerce capabilities on the Internet can stretch a budget and make life easier for businesses and residents—whether they want to obtain a building permit or receive an e-mail alert during an emergency.

It’s a trend that isn’t about to disappear anytime soon. In fact, a few agencies are also turning to community bulletin boards and even blogs. And Alexandria is considering making news and audio data available for download to Apple iPods and other MP3 devices.

Ultimately, according to James Krouse, manager of market analysis for INPUT, a Reston, Va., consulting firm, “The goal is to create a more efficient form of government.”

E-Government Initiatives

Providing the public with a high level of service is the mission of most state and local agencies. But the road to success is often filled with more than a few potholes.

For one thing, tight budgets and limited funding make adequate staffing difficult, and that often adds up to long lines and frustrating waits in government offices. For another, transactions are typically paper intensive and processing them devours time. All too often, the end result is bureaucracy.

E-government initiatives attempt to cut through the inefficiency and usher in an era of streamlined government. While many first-generation government sites—which began to pop up in the mid-1990s—offered little more than information and online versions of existing paper documents, the use of electronic tools has grown and evolved in recent years. Today, the emphasis is on cutting through the administrative overhead and delivering services in a way that mimics the private sector.

Today’s Internet Protocol networks are an ideal foundation for developing an array of capabilities and services, says Aaron Vance, a senior analyst at Synergy Research Group, a Phoenix-based market research firm. These include enterprise resource planning (ERP), Web portals, IP communications and e-commerce offerings. “It creates new possibilities and new opportunities,” he says.

Hundreds of state and local agencies now embrace e-government in a big way. Santa Monica, Calif., was one of the first cities to go online in 1989. At that time, the city operated a bulletin board that allowed community members and city officials to dial in via modem and view text-based reports, city studies and other data. Today, Santa Monica’s site provides polling on key issues, registration for recreational classes, e-payments for utility bills and parking citations, and renewals of business licenses. In Portland, Ore., city council meetings are available through the city’s Web site, and project bidding has migrated online.

However, very few cities have approached e-government as ambitiously as Alexandria. The historic community, which encompasses about 16 square miles within the Washington, D.C., metro area, has a varied population that ranges from poor to affluent.

In addition, the city is a draw for tourists and is attractive for numerous businesses, including nearly 400 professional and trade associations that require access to the nearby District of Columbia. Alexandria is also the headquarters for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, whose employees and constituents are often tech-savvy. As E-Government Manager Fifer puts it: “With such a diverse community, we need to serve people and businesses in many different ways.”

From the beginning, Alexandria’s leaders wanted to offer more than brochureware for visitors and basic city information for residents. “We needed to move beyond simply cutting and pasting existing information into the Web site and including phone numbers and addresses,” Fifer explains. “We felt it was essential to take advantage of the Web and the interactivity it offers.” One of the first interactive tools was a job site that allows prospective employees to fill out applications online and then lets the city manage them electronically.

The use of online job posting and recruiting has proven a boon. “We have eliminated a huge mass of paper and made the process far more efficient,” Fifer says. Not only can applicants eliminate a drive to city offices, they are also able to apply up until the last minute.

According to Fifer, that has provided substantial benefits. “In the past, some people who are excellent candidates did not apply because of the inconvenience factor,” he says. “Today, we’re attracting a broader pool of candidates and finding a higher percentage of people who are highly qualified.”

Becoming More Accessible

Alexandria’s march toward e-government doesn’t stop there. One of the city’s primary goals is to make local government more accessible and participatory.

Most online payment services use credit cards, which forces government agencies to pass along a transaction fee to customers. After adding the option for people to make electronic payments from their checking and savings accounts with no fee, the city received nearly $2 million in e-check payments in the first year.

Collecting fines on parking tickets through online payments has reduced delays and improved cash flow. Meanwhile, citizens can look up crime reports, view maps and geographic information systems (GIS) used for building, track permit status, search through the library’s catalog and register for recreational classes.

There’s also an e-news service that sends information to computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), pagers and cell phones. Already, Alexandria offers 37 categories of information, ranging from city council meeting minutes to payment deadline reminders and news releases. Later this year, the city will begin using the system for emergency notifications and homeland security bulletins.

In addition, Alexandria is planning a system that lets those with digital music players download audio clips and listen to them on the go. “It makes sense to offer information on devices that people are already using in their everyday lives,” Fifer points out.

Information technology is also automating internal processes. The city has equipped its more than 200 police cars with computer terminals that wirelessly connect to a central database. The system allows officers to check names, license plates and other information from the car and receive data—including photos of missing or wanted persons—immediately. Fifer says the system handles the work of 13 full-time workers, speeds the delivery of services in the community and frees the radio channel for more urgent communications.

The latest wrinkle is the city’s rollout of wireless Internet access, which provides a valuable service for residents and businesses. It also enables visitors and tourists to connect to the Internet via a Wi-Fi-equipped computer or PDA and view maps, restaurant information and more.

“We want to cultivate the image of Alexandria as a high-tech community,” Fifer explains. “We want to get people talking about the community and what we offer.” The initial wireless deployment took place in the city’s downtown and marina areas, but Alexandria is considering expanding coverage to additional public spaces and pedestrian corridors.

A Strong Foundation

One of the primary factors contributing to the success of Alexandria’s e-government initiative is the city’s ability to build a strong technology foundation. Fifer points out that Alexandria was the second city in the United States to use its capital improvement program to fund information technology projects.

The city relies on approximately 100 servers and 2,500 desktop PCs—running mostly on Windows 2000. It uses Lotus Notes for internal messaging, calendaring and niche database applications, and has developed specific applications for tax administration systems, payroll, building permits, real estate assessments, GIS, accounting and its own justice information system.

In addition, Alexandria has deployed nearly 100 wireless PDAs, including Treos, BlackBerrys and smartphones. And the city has tied together the various systems and technologies through a fiber backbone that now connects 95 city sites and schools.

While Alexandria’s system has already paid huge dividends—allowing the city to use videoconferencing and other multimedia services—it will also serve as the foundation for future e-government initiatives, possibly including Voice over Internet Protocol. “We’re striving to make Alexandria more efficient and attractive,” Fifer explains.

Making I.T. Click

Other cities and counties are following in the footsteps of Alexandria and looking to ratchet up efficiency and productivity. For example, in DeKalb County, Ga.—the state’s second largest county in terms of population—the emphasis is on providing outstanding services to a diverse group of citizens, most of whom live in the high-density neighborhoods of Decatur and parts of Atlanta.

DeKalb County has built a one-gigabit fiber backbone in order to handle an array of services electronically. These include tax appraisal and collections (using debit cards), business licenses, electronic meter reading and procurement.

“We want to be known as a progressive county that streamlines interactions with the public and businesses,” says Curtis Rawlings, deputy director of information systems.

Like many counties, DeKalb offers a Web site portal that allows visitors to focus on the specific information and services they require, including bids, licenses, civil and criminal records searches, permits, voter registration and utility payments. Residents can also renew vehicle tags online. According to Rawlings, DeKalb County is also working to connect its systems with other government agencies. “We’re looking to create a totally electronic form of government,” he remarks.

Despite the success of some cities and counties—including Alexandria and DeKalb—results can prove elusive, according to INPUT’s Krouse. Limited funding for technology has made it difficult for many government agencies to build out e-government systems, and he believes that tight budgets will prevail during the next few years. So those with a solid technology foundation have an advantage.

Krouse believes that many cities and counties need to improve the organization of their Web sites and introduce portals. Many also need to set up systems for electronic fund transfers rather than making credit cards the only online option and imposing steep service fees.

More importantly, Krouse contends that government agencies must find ways to make e-government services available to a larger segment of the population. “A lot of people—particularly the poor—still do not have computers and access to information and services online,” he says. (See “Digital War on Poverty ” on page 32.) “The goal should be universal access.”

Finally, agencies must find ways to consolidate systems and build an overall platform that works across agencies. Too many agencies wind up with multiple ERP, payroll and human resources systems in place, he maintains.

Yet Krouse, like many others, believes the future of government lies in the delivery of electronic services. And many state and local government agencies have only begun to tap into the potential of the technology.

“The end goals are to increase efficiency and reduce costs,” he says. “There are some steep challenges, but the potential rewards are also great.”

E-Government Spending

INPUT, a Reston, Va., consulting firm, estimates that state and local
e-government spending will grow dramatically in the next five years.

2005 — $130 million
2006 — $175 million
2007 — $310 million
2008 — $580 million
2009 — $920 million

E-Gov Technologies at a Glance

FOLLOWING ARE SOME of the technologies and tools that redefine the way state and local government agencies conduct business and interact with suppliers, citizens and other agencies:

E-Commerce: Electronic systems can trim costs and improve procurement. They also can simplify paper-intensive processes, such as registrations, permits and renewals, as well as sell products and services.

Enterprise Resource Planning: These systems can streamline internal business processes and improve interactions with suppliers and other agencies.

Geographic Information Systems: These mapping systems, which typically involve several layers of data that can be visually presented, are valuable for developers, builders and others. Online availability can greatly simplify the dissemination of this data. (See “Operation Emergency Response ” on page 42.)

Internet Protocol (IP) Telephony: Voice over Internet Protocol can simplify network administration, cut costs and offer unified messaging, which allows a user to receive voice mail, e-mail and faxes in a single inbox.

IP Video: A growing number of state and local agencies are putting hearings, meetings and other events online. Citizens can view the events when it’s convenient.

Portals: A well-designed portal can serve as a valuable navigation tool for those using a Web site. Some agencies are now allowing users to customize content.

Reporting: Data analysts and others can gain insight into issues and trends using business intelligence and analytics applications available online.

Wi-Fi: Residents and tourists can access the Internet via a computer or personal digital assistant equipped with a wireless card. Many state and local agencies use their Web page as the starting point.

Alerts and Information: It’s possible to disseminate news and provide emergency alerts via e-mail and paging services.

$2 MIL

After adding the option for people to make electronic payments from their checking and savings accounts with no fee, Alexandria, Va., received nearly $2 million in e-check payments in the first year.

Oct 31 2006