Portal Power

Utah.gov is not only transforming the way citizens and organizations interact with the state government, it's also saving money, boosting productivity and helping to bring business to the state.

WHEN UTAH GOVERNMENT IT OFFICIALS flipped the switch on the new state Web site, Utah.gov, in 1999, they couldn’t have known they would spend a good deal of the next six years accepting invitations to award ceremonies. Much admired by political leaders for its wide-ranging approach to efficient e-government, and by information technology experts for its technological innovations, Utah.gov is a model of what can be achieved when the political desire to create better government and a business-friendly climate combine with Internet know-how.

A tour of Utah.gov reveals close to 400 services that either citizens or businesses can access to take care of government-related tasks, such as paying taxes. Many of the services cut across several state agencies — and their not-always-compatible computer systems — to create single-step processes that previously may have required citizens to visit several different offices.

Continual Updates

Updated five times in the past six years, Utah.gov always features some new tool. Deciding which features to tackle next is the job of Stephen Fletcher, appointed the state’s new CIO in May 2005, by Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. Fletcher’s strategy involves adopting a businesslike approach.

“All of our applications have to have a business requirement and a justification going forward,” he says. “When we look at potential projects, we ask, ‘Why are we going to do this, and what is it going to improve?’ Then we prioritize and factor in budget constraints.”

Fletcher adds that sometimes a state agency official will come to him with a request to automate another service, and sometimes the IT team pitches an idea. “It works both ways,” he says.

Throughout its existence, Utah.gov has gotten a lot of help from Utah Interactive, a subsidiary of NIC, an Olathe, Kan.-based provider of interactive solutions for e-government. Utah Interactive serves as the network manager for the state site and has developed about half of Utah.gov’s features.

Carrie Gott, general manager of Utah Interactive, says e-government projects vary from state to state. “NIC has subsidiaries in 18 states, each of which has a unique set of needs and culture,” she explains. “Sometimes, a state asks us to conduct research to identify the high-impact interfacing e-services we should build in partnership with — and at the direction of — the state. Other times, we may be handed a list of services that a state has identified as a high priority. Citizens are demanding online government service delivery, and every state is looking for a way to deliver.”

States can launch e-government efforts with little up-front costs. The deal Utah officials struck with Utah Interactive, for instance, did not include any development costs. Instead Utah Interactive takes a commission on the “convenience fees” that citizens and businesses may pay for online services.

The commission arrangement is a win-win, as the developers are always looking to improve services that will provide the most benefit. Meanwhile, the state leaders can get going with their e-government plans without having to appeal to the legislature for budget money.

In mapping out the online services, Utah officials were very aware of what they wanted right from the start, says Fletcher. The state leadership demanded services that would keep business in the state and attract even more business. As it turns out, Utah.gov’s OneStop Business Registration, online for more than two years now, is one of the site’s most successful services in terms of use.

The cross-agency app frees its users from having to interact with five state agencies and various local and federal agencies, taking the mystery out of the process of registering a small business with the state. A single Web page contains all the necessary forms and applications, which can be filled out in about 45 minutes, as opposed to the several days it used to take to gather the forms and fill them out.

Utah.gov also has a State Construction Registry System, which gives building suppliers and contractors a streamlined registration system that lets them simultaneously file permit paperwork to the county and the state.

Vehicle owners can take advantage of Utah.gov’s Renewal Express vehicle registration renewal service. Not only can vehicle owners go online to renew their registration, but participating inspection stations have been Internet-equipped so drivers can pass inspection, pay their fees and get their renewals in real time, doing away with a several-day, several-step process. Utah Interactive’s Gott uses this example as proof that Utah is pushing the dial on e-government service delivery and is continuing to find better ways to meet citizens where they are, providing 24 x 7 service for greater convenience to the public.

In 2005, Utah.gov won an award from the Government Contact Center Community of Practice for its innovative 24 x 7 Live Help Network. Since the summer of 2003, visitors have been able to chat online with customer service reps, send e-mail or phone for assistance. According to Fletcher, it pays off every time it helps a citizen or business avoid having to make a trip to an agency office.

And that leads to the question of return on investment. Some benefits are obvious: Online driver’s license and auto registration applications are being used by more than 20 percent of the eligible state population. Fletcher and his team point to cost reductions in phone calls, office visits and incoming mail; staffing changes due to faster transactions; and lower costs via the elimination of paperwork.

“We’re looking for impact,” Fletcher says. “How many people are being served? How many transactions are we generating? Have we addressed the state services that the people need most?”

“One of the governor’s biggest initiatives is to bring businesses to the state and to help them develop once they’re here,” Fletcher says. “If the Web site can help do that, then it’s succeeding.”

Fletcher believes others can follow his state’s e-government model, even if they are saddled with old systems or other issues. “It all starts with the enterprise architecture,” he says. “You’re forced to identify all your systems and log every type of data element in each system. If you do that first, you’ll be a lot more efficient going forward. It’s a lot of up-front pain to get easier operation and maintenance.

“Every state has basically the same set of rules. The only difference between a small state and a large state is the volume that goes through the system. The applications themselves are scalable.”

Up next for Fletcher is tackling two of the most complex government services: welfare and health care, both of which need online overhauls. “I spend a lot of time looking at these large apps,” Fletcher says. “They’re difficult to address, but I hope to bring best practices from both the public and private sectors to get them right.”

IT Takeaway

States can launch ambitious e-government efforts with a minimum of expense. In Utah, government officials made a deal with Utah Interactive that did not include development costs. In exchange, Utah Interactive receives a commission on the convenience fees that the state charges businesses and individuals for using select online services.

20 Services Available at Utah.gov

• Renew a driver’s license

• Register to vote

• Find child care

• Search for health insurance

• Register a business

• File an unemployment claim

• Look up government loans

• Renew a professional license

• Reserve a state park camping site

• Appeal a ticket

• Join a carpool

• Start an adoption search

• Get food stamps

• Find vanity license plates

• Study state legislation

• Find a licensed state lobbyist

• Pay county property taxes

• Renew boat registration

• Buy a hunting license

• View registered sex offender list

Don Willmott is a technology journalist based in New York.

Oct 31 2006