Maine's move to online services picks up speed'and users

Project at a glance

Who: Maine Department of the Secretary of State and InforME, a collaboration of the state government and a subsidiary of e-government company NIC Inc.


Mission: Through its many online services, the Secretary of State's Office is seeking to make government more accessible and efficient. Web access is especially important in a rural state like Maine, where residents might otherwise have to travel long distances for such services.


What was: Government services were largely paper-driven. Users of services would contact state offices in person or over the telephone.


What is: Businesses and citizens may go online to renew vehicle registration, file corporate and nonprofit annual reports, search for and file Uniform Commercial Code liens that cover personal property used as collateral, receive automatic notification of changes in the driving records of employees and authenticate certified electronic documents.


Impact: The department's online applications have made government services more accessible and convenient for individuals and businesses. They have also boosted revenue. More than 40 percent of the revenue of the department's corporate division is received online.


Timeline:


Cost:

Open access: The motto of the Maine Web service is, 'Get online, not inline,' secretary of state Dan Gwadosky says.

Jim Evans

Many states have put services for citizens and businesses online. What sets the efforts of Maine apart is how extensively users have adopted them.

Over the last two years, the state has implemented services such as license renewals, electronic tax filing, document ordering and payment options at www.SOSonline.org. User response has been overwhelming.

Since the services became available online, 99 percent of all driver record searches and 95 percent of all searches of the Uniform Commercial Code have been completed online. Of 50,000 annual reports Maine used to receive on paper, 69 percent are submitted online.

The state has pulled in an average of more than $1.3 million in revenue per month from its online operations this year. And businesses retrieved and filed more than 4.5 million records in the first half of this year.

In January, Maine plans to notify car owners online of insurance suspensions in an effort to motivate them to maintain their car insurance.

Maine secretary of state Dan Gwadosky has been the driving force behind the e-government projects, said Carrie Gott, general manager of InforME, which is a collaboration between the state and a subsidiary of NIC Inc. of Olathe, Kan., which hosts SOSonline.org.

Gwadosky brought business organizations into the process as the state developed and tested its online services. Developers asked businesses what services they wanted online and how they should be presented.

And the state marketed the new services through the media and direct mailings, establishing a mantra for SOSonline: 'Get online, not in line.'

Maine provides user support for its online service by telephone and e-mail and makes payment and billing easier for users by providing a variety of options.

One of the first services the site offered was Rapid Renewal for car registration, which let users avoid the hassle of waiting in lines at government offices. In Maine, car owners must pay an excise tax to renew vehicle registrations.

Before the state began offering the service online, car owners had to pay the tax in the towns where vehicles were registered, then complete the renewals at a branch of the Motor Vehicles Department. The online service made the process much simpler.

'We started small, with 10 towns, which sold the service for us through word of mouth,' Gwadosky said. Now, 63 towns offer Rapid Renewal and have completed 75,000 transactions.

More, and more often

To market the service, Gwadosky's office sent notices to car owners about renewing online. 'It was one of the first intergovernmental e-commerce applications in the country because it allowed someone to interface with two branches of government, in this case state and local, in a single application,' he said.

Seeing the success of the vehicle registration, towns wanted to conduct more services online, such as payment of property taxes and dog registrations, Gwadosky said.

The state has sought to develop user-friendly applications for its online services.

'When either a business or citizen user tries an application, you're going to get one or two chances to make an impression,' Gwadosky said. 'So it's got to work effectively and be more convenient than whatever the traditional means was.'

For Rapid Renewal, Maine worked with individual users and businesses to develop the look and feel.

To decide what new government services to put online, Gwadosky said the state's strategy is to 'follow the lines and logjams.'

What Maine does differently from other states is the amount of marketing of new online services, Gwadosky said. 'We're always looking for a new approach.'

The Secretary of State's Office offers 20 online services, while other state agencies and municipalities provide a total of 300 online services. Marketing the services is especially important in Maine, which is geographically a large state but with a small population.

'When you have that kind of geography to overcome, you can't build enough government buildings, so you have to consider technology to make it easier and more user-friendly to access information and service for people,' he said.

Gwadosky, who spent 18 years in the state Legislature and is in his eighth year as secretary of state, is also using the site to advance civics education to help people understand how the Maine legislative process works. He has developed six lesson plans for civics teachers called the Path to Maine Laws.

'With elections approaching and states trying to increase voter turnout, I'm convinced there's a tie-in between how receptive people feel about the services they are getting from government and their inclination to want to cast a ballot on Election Day,' he said.

'If they feel good about the services they're getting, they'll be more likely to get involved in the election process. And if they're involved in the elections process, they care enough to learn about the issues and the candidates, the neighborhoods are going to be stronger, the towns are going to be stronger and we all win.'

InforME develops the transaction apps, which rely on back-end databases from Oracle Corp. and MySQL AB of Sweden.

The apps, written in Perl and PHP scripting language, run under Sun Microsystems Solaris. Users access the services through Web browsers, some in bulk using Extensible Markup Language and some through automated fax-backs via the Internet.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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