E-gov creators learn from trial and error

E-gov creators learn from trial and error

As government apps go online, agencies must maintain control

By Claire E. House

GCN Staff

The United States encompasses about 80,000 state, county and municipal governments. The electronic government index of the new ezgov.com government Web portal indicates, however, that there are only 48 governments with online transactional services.

It's clear that governments have a long way to go, which leaves room for vendors to step in and help.

It's true that the public sector has been slower to adopt electronic commerce than some areas of industry, said Daniel Greenwood, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lecturer on e-commerce systems design and chairman of the former Electronic Transactions Committee of the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council (EC3).

The motivations and business pressures of the public sector are different than those of the private sector. Rather than looking to capture markets and increase revenues, governments seek first to reduce costs and enhance services, Greenwood said.

An EC3 survey last year found that most state governments have e-commerce projects in the works. Many plan to offer services such as online permitting and license renewals, and some are working on higher-stakes applications such as business tax collection and procurement.

'When they get more experience with security and authentication in lower-stakes areas, we will see the higher-stakes action come online,' Greenwood said.

So is outsourcing a good option? Some governments think so. Arizona and New Jersey, for example, have teamed up with IBM Corp. to take driver's license renewals online. DeKalb County, Ga., has linked up with ezgov.com inc. of Atlanta for property tax payments and deed searches. Boston, on the other hand, has developed its online applications in-house.

Some worries

Greenwood has mixed feelings about e-government outsourcing. He is glad to see seamless portals for users and a move toward online services, he said, but he worries about ownership.

'Control should remain in the hands of people who are public stewards,' he said.

And although the private sector may have strong expertise and ability to implement cutting-edge technology, just how much control should public officials cede?

The technical specifications of systems in use by governments can become closely intertwined with the process of government, Greenwood said.

Governments must be careful when computer code becomes, in a sense, legal code because it defines the exact rules of engagement between a citizen and government.

A radical democratic approach to keeping e-government in line would be to set up a citizen nonprofit organization to regulate the industry, he said.

A big-government approach would be to let a governmental entity oversee outsourced systems.

Comparably speaking, e-government tends to fall under a small-government setup. Governments tend to have a say in application design and security requirements; vendors are learning that flexibility is essential.

The main government data and business rules typically stay with the government itself.

More, please

Citizens can still go to an office or make a phone call if the application is less than what they need.

Even so, governments must keep watchful ownership over any outsourced project and make sure individual projects don't stifle potential integration and innovation, Greenwood said.

Trial and error as well as trial and success will shape the evolution of e-government.

It is likely that a combination of vendor partnerships and in-house control, depending on circumstance and application, will help government progress and maintain its standing, stewardship and service to taxpayers.

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