Been to Bean's?

Thomas R. Temin

Government agencies could learn a lot from L.L. Bean.

Bean's'if you aspire to be a suave but practical Yankee who camps, hikes and fly fishes from a rustic but picture-perfect, Chardonnay-and-golden-retriever New England country homestead'is one savvy retailer.

I've been a Bean's customer for many years. Like other successful retailers, Bean's has an extensive mail-order program, an expanding network of stores'the original one, in Freeport, Maine, never closes'and a robust Web site.

Recently I wanted a pair of boots. Bean's new store in McLean, Va., didn't stock them, and I didn't know the catalog number.

So I went to an in-store terminal equipped with a black IBM Corp. flat-screen monitor and found the boots on Bean's Web site. The salesman, after leading me through racks of other boots I did not want, explained that if I called in the order from the store, the shoes would be delivered to my house with no shipping charges, but I'd have to pay the sales tax.

He led me to a phone. I dictated the model and size out of a catalog to the operator and completed the transaction.

Now you tell me: Was that an online, in-person or mail order transaction?

In thinking about a citizen-centric government, agencies'whether federal, state or local'must keep in mind that Web delivery of services doesn't necessarily replace other forms of interaction. For all of its virtues, the Web can't totally replace walk-up or call-in service.

As many officials in the hinterlands beyond the Beltway know, the county building or the local Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service Office are gathering places for people. More practically, things such as driver's licenses and other transactions require some in-person interaction during their lifecycle.

The point is that the term citizen-centric means giving people service how and when they want it. For many, that will be by traditional means for the foreseeable future.

Online government is a lot further down the road than the hype about FirstGov and other initiatives would make it seem. It's too soon to put the purported cost savings from online services in the piggy bank.

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