VIRGINIA BEACH, VA., became one of the nation’s top digital cities despite a tech bust, a sluggish economy, terrorist attacks, a sniper trial and a hurricane. Now, it must continue its success in the absence of its chief architect, former CIO David Sullivan, a 32-year veteran of the public sector. StateTech spoke with Sullivan about his role in helping to build one of the nation’s pre-eminent local e-government initiatives.
Several months into his new job as vice president of information technology for Hampton Roads Transit, in Hampton, Va., Sullivan still uses the first-person plural when he talks about his former job leading the e-government initiative in Virginia Beach.
“We’re all citizens,” says Sullivan, just like the customers he and the city’s 6,000-plus government employees served during his six years as Virginia Beach’s CIO. His customer-centric, organizationally oriented focus may explain the success of Virginia Beach’s e-government organization — especially VBgov.com, the city’s centerpiece Web portal.
Government departments, Sullivan says, have a tendency to think only of “their” customers, not recognizing that someone who pays a water bill may also register for a class at the community center or need information on buying a new home.
“The citizen is the customer of all of us [in government], and citizens expect to be dealt with that way,” he notes. “They don’t understand, nor should they have to, the way we are organized.”
The Right Structure
Sullivan considers Virginia Beach’s government organization a key advantage in the city’s IT initiatives. The two main types of city government in the United States — mayor-council and city council-manager — set up very different sets of expectations for administrators, according to Sullivan.
While the city council-manager structure may be falling out of favor in some communities, Sullivan argues that the system offers a stability that is ideal for large-scale IT projects. In Virginia Beach, Sullivan and his IT team reported directly to the city manager, and that hierarchy gave them a better perspective on how the entire organization functioned, rather than limiting IT to observing the discrete activities of a single department.
“Local government is a loosely held confederacy of independent departments, each with its own mission,” Sullivan says. His objective was to take those competing priorities and weave them into a cohesive IT infrastructure that would help connect citizens to all the services they might need — from the library to the criminal justice system.
Sullivan became director of IT in 1995, and his touch was evident in Virginia Beach’s earliest Web presence, which launched the following year. While still departmentalized and lacking a consistent look and feel, the site offered a citizen-oriented approach that organized services into business categories.
Efforts ramped up in 2000, when Mayor Meyera Oberndorf announced her intention to have Virginia Beach transform itself through e-government. With that mandate, Sullivan implemented a commercial-grade content management system and pulled departmental teams together to determine how to deliver services online. He also secured a catchy URL suggested by the mayor: VBgov.com.
Sullivan launched a branding campaign, putting the URL wherever citizens might look. “We had it on signs, cars, everywhere,” he says. The campaign was so successful that when .gov extensions became available for localities and states, Virginia Beach opted not to switch. “We had too much invested in building the brand, and at 400,000 user sessions a month, we had no reason to risk breaking that connection with our customers,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan employed another standby of corporate marketing to drive users to VBgov.com: He integrated communications across various government channels. His CIO position gave him responsibility for public affairs and communications, including the Web site, cable and government-access television broadcasts, and print publications. “Because all these functions reported to the CIO, we could develop a cohesive, integrated communications strategy that supported our IT efforts,” Sullivan says.
Responding to the Customer
Sullivan considers the hurricane preparedness report feature at VBgov.com the “slickest” example of how Virginia Beach has used the Web to pull government services together. Developed in 2003, the system marries traditional online government information with a geographic information system.
Citizens type in a street address, and the system produces a customized report complete with maps, evacuation routes, shelters and other information about preparing for a major storm. In the past, citizens might have had to conduct multiple searches across emergency management sites, weather sites, and even travel or map sites to get that information.
In addition to assisting citizens, VBgov.com has helped the city streamline operations and reduce bureaucratic busywork. Prior to 2002, Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation relied solely on a hefty print catalog to promote its programs. Catalog in hand, citizens would rush to be first to mail registration forms for popular classes or summer camps. The process was frustrating for citizens, who might wait up to three weeks to find out whether they were registered for a program, and time-consuming for government employees, who spent hours shuffling paper.
When VBgov.com launched a Web-enabled online payment and registration system in March 2002, the process changed completely. “In the first four hours, we did between 2,000 and 3,000 registrations and a couple hundred-thousand dollars in business,” Sullivan recalls. “We removed the administrative aspects, so our employees could focus on running rec center programs instead of signing people up for them.”
He points out that even in a city like Virginia Beach, where 85 percent of the population is on the Internet, online systems can’t be the only way things work. “The challenge for government is that you have to maintain the legacy way of doing business,” he says.
Sullivan urges public sector CIOs to focus on how technology can help citizens. One way to do that, he suggests, is to “Spend time where the service happens. It really opens your eyes to what technology might be able to do.”
Former Virginia Beach CIO David Sullivan recommends maximizing your e-government initiative by following these six steps:
1. Make the Web site URL easy to remember.
2. Promote the brand with an integrated communication strategy, utilizing print, electronic and billboards — all the media you can muster.
3. Focus on how tech can help citizens, such as the Virginia Beach hurricane preparedness report.
4. Use the site to streamline operations and reduce bureaucratic busywork.
5. Have your government staff use the technology themselves.
6. Spend time where service happens and apply what you learn to the Web site.
What goes into a nationally renowned local government Web site? David Sullivan, former CIO for Virginia Beach, Va., says that it has to have the basics: standard e-government services such as forms, online bill payment, service requests, directories and calendars; accurate, timely information; and a solid back-end architecture to keep the portal up and running.
“We think wide and deep, providing a lot of information, but organizing as an organization,” Sullivan says about VBgov.com, the city’s government Web portal. “We always debate how to tweak the site to make things easier to find.” And the site is updated continually. “You can literally go to our site and 10 minutes later find something new,” he says.
Once you’ve deployed the basics, Sullivan adds, it’s time to “blow ‘em away.” “When you have a customer-focused, content-rich, expectation-meeting Web site, wow your customers by exceeding their expectations,” he advises. In Virginia Beach, this is done by providing:
• Live online help available 24 x 7
• Immediate acknowledgment and response to online service requests
• Location-aware applications that harness the power of maps and geographic information systems to provide targeted information to citizens
• Live Webcasts and video archives of public meetings
• Access to document archives
• A single customer-oriented calendar of events rather than multiple departmental calendars
• Access to emergency preparedness information, including a dynamic emergency-content site updated during actual emergency events.