Nov 23 2009

Web Portals Provide Efficiencies

Content publishing and management systems help states and municipalities streamline services to citizens.

By Amy Schurr


Web Portals Provide Efficiencies

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A few years ago, Cuyahoga Falls' applications and data resided anywhere and everywhere. "Data was all over the place," says John Konich, IT services director for the Ohio city. "The key to everything we do is addresses," he says. "We had five or six address databases, and none of them were ever right."

IS wanted to offer e-government services to citizens, and the first step to doing so was centralizing data and providing a single point of entry to its applications. Now the city has a single enterprise address database and a robust portal through which employees and residents can access city data and services.

Picking a Portal

In 2004, IS Manager Gary Bishop investigated portals with help from partner Berbee. He and Konich chose IBM WebSphere Portal Server and an IBM System i 550 to host the applications. "BladeCenter was emerging technology back then, and it was cheaper to go with the iSeries versus blades at the time," Bishop notes of the purchase.

Gary Bishop (left) and John Konich eagerly anticipate the e-government services Cuyahoga Falls' automated meter rollout will offer residents of the Ohio city.

Credit: Roger Mastroianni

The portal went live in 2005, and the online services Cuyahoga Falls offers citizens have steadily multiplied since then. "Residents can pay their utility bills online, request paperless bills, sign up for classes with our Parks and Recreation department and sign up for alerts," says Konich. Cuyahoga Falls offers citizens a CFOne card, which gives the holder admission to the city water park, workout facility or golf course and doubles as a payment method.

Cuyahoga Falls invested about $450,000 for hardware, software, professional services and maintenance -- an investment that has absolutely paid off, says Bishop. "We have reduced staff in our utility billing department because more people are paying online," he says. "Almost 20 percent of our customers pay online now, and that continues to grow." What's more, the portal is well-received by citizens and employees, he says.

The city is reaping cost-avoidance benefits that have spurred many state and local governments to offer services online, says Chris Dixon, manager of state and local government for Input.

Dixon notes that when portals first became a trend after Y2K, "the initial impetus behind them was citizen goodwill and an optional channel of service for citizens."  This time around, budget shortfalls necessitate portal deployment. "There's a real need now to drive usage of various services and payment processes to the web versus anything that requires maintaining office hours and staffing," Dixon says.

Indeed, Cuyahoga Falls has embarked on an automated meter reading project, says Konich. The city-run water and electric utilities are swapping out old meters with wireless ones that transmit data back to city hall. "When that's completed, citizens are going to be able to go online and have a better view of their usage," he says. Roughly five percent of the installation has been completed, and the goal is to finish the project by the end of 2010.

The portal will soon get a facelift as IS redesigns its look and feel. "As portals come out, you start to see a general feel of things that are expected," says Bishop. The back-end security will change, too, when IS rolls out Tivoli Access Manager for single sign-on capabilities.

Sharing the Workload

West Virginia experienced the fragmentation challenge that Cuyahoga Falls did, but on a much larger scale. "We had various agencies using various technologies," says Kyle Schafer, chief technology officer for the state.

"Any time the user needed a change on the website, he had to come back to us and have us do the work," Schafer says. As a result, the development time to turn around a web page could take weeks to complete -- an unacceptable lag in providing timely information to West Virginians.

With help from portal partner NIC, Schafer standardized on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 for content management. While NIC runs many of the state's citizen-facing websites, administrators and secretaries maintain their intranets and agency websites and can make updates in minutes, freeing IT to focus on other tasks.

"Overall, SharePoint has been a great choice for us," says Schafer. "It offers a broad range of capabilities, and it's been very cost effective."

Lessons Learned

IT leaders share the following advice for guiding a portal deployment:

  • Get buy-in. Start with support from the mayor or city manager, recommends John Konich, IT services director for Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. "Everybody is going to be resistant to change."
  • Market your project. Even with executive backing, you'll get a fight from some users. "You have to coddle them and listen to them," suggests Gary Bishop, Cuyahoga Falls' IS manager. That strategy paid off in the long run. "People did not embrace this well at all, and now they can't live without it," he says.
  • Train users. "Initially we didn't train our users on how to maintain their content as well as we should have because it just seemed fairly simple," concedes West Virginia Chief Technology Officer Kyle Schafer. "Concentrate on the human factor, and do the necessary training." That includes helping users establish workflow in SharePoint.
  • Maintain the investment. "Don't just grab the initial ROI and let your portal languish on the web," advises Chris Dixon, manager of state and local government for Input. "Take a portion of the savings and invest it into improvement and expansion of the web presence."