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The Case For Portals -- When Citizens Demand Online Access to Their Government, States Turn to the Experts
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The Case For Portals -- When Citizens Demand Online Access to Their Government, States Turn to the Experts

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A three-part series from Governing magazine that discusses the paths several states took after deciding to establish public-private partnerships to manage their eGovernment services.

A three-part series from Governing magazine that discusses the paths several states took after deciding to establish public-private partnerships to manage their eGovernment services.

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  • 1. THE CASE FOR PORTALS When citizens demand online access to their government, states turn to the experts. “I f we have learned one thing from the history of inven- “The public sector had and continues to have limited tion and discovery,” wrote novelist and inventor resources to build the technological infrastructure of a por- Arthur C. Clarke, “it is that, in the long run —and tal,” Thornburgh says. Funds for new initiatives, particularly often in the short one — the most daring prophecies unproven ones, are usually tight. Like many states, Kansas did seem laughably conservative.” Looking back on the advent of not employ a large staff of skilled managers who could build electronic government in the early to mid-1990s, we find that the portal from the ground up, keep it running and enhance it Clarke’s observation again holds true. over time. Consider this: In 1999, the state of Kansas made applica- What the state lacked in expertise and resources, portal tions for hunting and fishing licenses available through its developers in the private sector made up for with a demonstra- official Web site. It’s hard to imagine today that anyone would ble track record of building online desti- have to physically present himself to another human being, in nations for large, complex organizations. a state office, during normal working hours, in order to obtain or renew a simple slip of paper. Indeed, if a transaction can’t “We had the databases, be conducted online, we doubt the professionalism of its pur- they had the technology. veyor, or at the very least wonder why they haven’t joined the modern age. In hindsight, Kansas’ online services hardly It became a beautiful seem innovative. marriage.” But in 1999, Kansas was considered a revolutionary. Its — Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh electronic licensing system soon became the envy of other state governments, which hoped to speed up sometimes slow For its part, Kansas knew what services it wanted to automate, bureaucratic transactions and, ideally, save money in the and what information it wanted to put online. “We had the process. In Kansas and elsewhere, chief information officers databases, they had the technology and know-how. It became and other technology officials declared that online licensing a beautiful marriage,” Thornburgh says. was merely a starting point. Soon, they predicted, citizens would be renewing driver’s licenses, applying for business per- WHY OUTSOURCE? mits, and opening new channels to interact with distant, incon- In the intervening years, state and local governments have sistently organized agencies. Their daring prophecies were met embraced online access. The portal, once a novelty, is now an with no small amount of skepticism. But today, dozens of expectation. If a government doesn’t make services available states are managing their relationships with citizens through online, citizens wonder what’s wrong. enterprise-wide Web portals, which are online destinations that Since the .gov domain—the generally preferred designation allow businesses and individuals to interact 24/7 with a vari- for government Web sites—was made available to state and ety of state government agencies through a single entry point. local government four years ago, almost 2,000 state and local When Kansas began to develop its portal, Kansas.gov, noth- sites use the designation, reports the National Association of ing like it existed, says Ron Thornburgh, Kansas’ secretary of State Chief Information Officers. Nearly all states have some state. “Being the first in the nation, we were headed toward form of a portal, which in its optimal form is a multi-faceted some uncharted waters.” But once the state realized that it Web site that provides information and facilitates transactions didn’t have to act alone to get eGovernment up and running, by serving as a “one-stop shop” for citizens doing business the process became much simpler. with the state or seeking information.
  • 2. Why should a state construct an enterprise-wide portal? Is all agencies and to align with a private sector provider whose there concrete value to be gained in terms of better service success depends on staying current with constantly evolving delivery or improved use of state resources? If the answer is Internet security regulations. The financial industry also main- yes, then there’s another fundamental question: Should this tains aggressive security policies that govern online credit be done in-house? Or does the state need outside help? card and electronic check payments and often imposes steep “It’s quite common for different individuals in various agen- fines for violations. “Our state partners have recognized that cies to say, ‘Why are we going outside to do this? Why don’t we the risk is simply too high to allow agencies to manage online build it ourselves?’ ” says Harry Herington, president of NIC security on their own,” says Herington. Inc., which manages eGovernment services for 21 states. Agencies have specific missions, and it is often easier for a MEETING EXPECTATIONS third party to facilitate cross-agency collaboration and deliver This gets to perhaps the strongest and simplest reason for an enterprise-wide solution, Herington says. This approach states to launch a portal: Citizens expect more flexibility and allows state leaders to provide a consistent level of openness when interacting with government. Research indi- eGovernment support across agencies and make the best use cates that states are meeting that demand. of state budget dollars. “Collectively, states have made great strides over the past The challenge for state governments, as for any large organ- six years in organizing their portals along lines that are gen- ization, is to assess what they’re good at and what their core erally accepted as being intuitive to citizens,” the National competencies are, explains Aneesh Chopra, secretary of tech- Association of State Chief Information Officers concluded in nology for the Commonwealth of Virginia. An outside entity a March 2007 report on state governments’ Internet pres- can tell the state what has worked and what hasn’t because ence. For example, most states allow citizens to locate a the private sector has a broader perspective on how to design service even if they do not know which agency provides it, the effective online services, he says. report stated. “Government is organized by geography. Where you live deter- mines what district you’re in, which describes the delivery An outside entity can tell the state what model for services,” says Chopra. In the world of “Web 2.0,” the has worked and what hasn’t because the next stage of online development in which portals play a central private sector has a broader perspective role, people are organizing themselves in new ways—for exam- ple, through social networking sites. “That compels government on how to design effective online services to rethink how it organizes services,” Chopra says. An outside perspective can also help to alleviate common DELIVERING VALUE concerns. “I remember the first time we had a discussion in As states continue to enhance online services, the payoff will our office about whether we should allow people to have be substantial. For example, among Kansas’ first electronic remote access to our data,” Thornburgh says. “It was an transactions was automating Universal Commercial Code serv- excruciating conversation.” Officials feared what might hap- ices. “We thought we’d be successful if we could enhance our pen if data was corrupted or misplaced. Services could be turnaround times on transactions and get a few people to per- disrupted. Then there was the anxiety over hackers and form transactions electronically,” Thornburgh says. Then the other intruders. state could free up state employees who usually manage these Many states have found that a portal actually enhances services to perform other tasks. security and the integrity of data, in large measure because it Kansas had twelve employees in the UCC division when the requires an enterprise-wide strategy that takes security into initiative began, Thornburgh says. Today, the filing system is consideration at the outset. “In Colorado, one clear driver for accessible through Kansas.gov, and the division has one full- a portal was security,” says Gregg Rippy, executive director of time and one part-time employee. Ninety percent of all UCC the Colorado Statewide Internet Portal Authority, and a former services are performed electronically now. member of the state legislature. It was possible to set up It was a small step, one that in retrospect might seem perimeter security around the portal itself, and the data sup- “laughably conservative.” But the value for the state was plying it, rather than individual perimeters for hundreds of demonstrable, and the portal made it happen. separate agency Web sites. Enterprise portals offer significant security advantages for This is the first in a series of three articles. In the next installment, learn about the building blocks of a successful portal. protecting sensitive personal and financial information. While citizens and businesses expect states to offer online payment options for eGovernment services, the cost of maintaining secure and compliant payment gateways is daunting and should not become a burden for every agency. Many states have concluded that the best course of action is to establish a single payment gateway through the portal for www.nicusa.com
  • 3. BUILD HOW TO A PORTAL A successful site rests on a solid foundation. T he first step in creating a statewide Web portal is making the case that it was worth the state’s financial invest- deciding whether to design it in-house or hire outside ment to improve service to citizens, the Commonwealth’s help. As discussed in part one of this series, many first CIO, Aldona Valicenti, provided a solid foundation for states have found it makes sense to tap a tested and Rutledge and his team to rapidly expand Kentucky’s experienced private sector provider to help construct and run eGovernment portal services. the portal. In Kansas, it was a group who formally championed a por- Once a state decides to outsource, what does it take to tal and took ownership of its development. There, officials cre- launch the portal and ensure that it has the resources and ated an oversight authority comprised of support it needs to grow? Officials who have gone through the public sector representatives, who con- process say there are four essential building blocks: a cham- pion, an appropriate governance structure, a stable and long- In Colorado, lawmakers were term funding source, and the right private sector partner. concerned about investing FIND A CHAMPION scarce dollars in a relatively Ambitious portal plans are often met with initial skepticism. In new concept. Colorado, lawmakers were concerned about investing scarce — Gregg Rippy, executive director of the Colorado dollars in a relatively new concept, says Gregg Rippy, the exec- Statewide Internet Portal Authority utive director of the Colorado Statewide Internet Portal Authority and a former state legislator. When planning for Colorado.gov got underway in 2002, “I wouldn’t say that [law- trolled access to the state’s data, and private sector technolo- makers’] level of understanding on information technology gy leaders, who brought real-world business acumen to the projects was very high,” Rippy says. Nor was their confidence. table, says Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh. This team “They had seen some previous projects not be as successful as decided what services to offer. They also developed a request they could be and felt like throwing money at another informa- for proposals, which laid out what the panel expected the pri- tion technology project could be a black hole.” vate sector provider to do. To move ahead, whether in the legislature or the executive Champions are indispensable evangelists of the vision. branch, a portal needs a champion, a key official or group to Their involvement in planning is crucial for setting expecta- become the project’s chief advocate. This is usually a high- tions and creating benchmarks to measure progress. level official who provides visibility and accountability to the project before the private sector provider is ever selected. ESTABLISH GOVERNANCE The job often falls to the state’s chief information officer With a champion and an initial plan in place, the next step is who can enlist the public support of the governor and other to define the governance process for the portal. Who will man- high-ranking officials. According to former Kentucky CIO age the site, secure sustainable funding and chart its future Mark Rutledge, his predecessor was an outspoken proponent growth? Laying out the lines of responsibility at the outset of portals and other electronic government initiatives. By avoids confusion and builds accountability.
  • 4. Colorado and several other states followed a two-step gover- cations, enhancing the technical infrastructure, and maintain- nance process. First, the legislature directed the state’s ing the current portal. Information Management Commission to evaluate the feasi- “The financing was the absolutely crucial part to making bility of building a portal. The commission identified the dif- this whole concept work,” says Kansas’ Thornburgh, echoing ferent options, including outsourcing. his colleagues in other states. “Nobody had money to throw Once the state had decided to hire a portal contractor, the into ‘what-ifs.’” As in most states that have chosen a transac- second step was to create a quasi-governmental authority to tion-based funding solution, the private sector contractor pro- implement and manage the site. This was essential in vided the initial capital to build Kansas.gov. Colorado, where tax laws strictly limit spending by existing Champions, Thornburgh says, must demonstrate that the agencies on new projects. To oversee Colorado.gov, lawmak- model will result in added savings. “You have to sit down with ers created the Statewide Internet Portal Authority, an inde- [agency officials] and talk about the cost savings,” he says. An agency may see a reduction in spending since it does not have to hire temporary [The] public-private partnership has proved to employees to run the portal to collect be the cornerstone of a successful portal. those fees. “We have consistently been able to show cost savings that come along with the portal,” Thornburgh says. pendent public body, governed by a board of directors that In many states, companies that regularly obtain state infor- includes representation from key state offices as well as pri- mation are charged a small fee for obtaining it through the vate sector leaders. portal. In Colorado, funding comes from delivering drivers’ As in other states, the portal authority became its champi- license records to insurance companies, banks and other on, holding face-to-face meetings with agency directors and approved consumers of that data, Rippy says. The state’s por- CIOs in localities across the state. After the portal launched, tal provider reinvests a large portion of that transaction rev- the board conducted a 10-city tour to promote Colorado.gov enue to help Colorado deliver more services across the state, to local technology professionals. including online motor vehicle registration renewals. The authority entered into a partnership with Colorado Interactive, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of NIC Inc., which SELECT A PARTNER manages eGovernment services in 21 states. In other states, With the plan and funding model in place, the final step is this kind of public-private partnership has proved to be the choosing the private sector provider. It may be the most sig- cornerstone of a successful portal. It allows the government to nificant choice of all, and state officials say that outsourcing take advantage of the private sector’s expertise, and shift a a portal constitutes a true partnership. significant amount of financial and political risk from the When selecting a private sector provider, states are striking state because the private sector provider has a stake in ensur- a long-term partnership that will make or break a portal, ing the portal’s success in order to see a profit. officials stress. It’s important to look at the company’s track record of building successful portals in other states and to take ESTABLISH STABLE AND advantage of the lessons they have learned, says Kentucky’s LONG-TERM FUNDING SOURCES Rutledge. “Whatever works in one state, with a little bit of With a governing model in place, the next step is to secure change, can be adopted by another state.” funding. State officials stress that there is no one-size-fits-all When state officials are contemplating a portal, they some- approach to secure enough money to provide services, pay the times look to neighboring states and select the functions they’d private sector provider, and grow the portal. But many have like to replicate, almost in “a la carte” fashion, says Jeff Fraser, found that a “self-funding” model helps stretch limited tech- chief executive officer of NIC. If the state chooses functions or nology budgets, creating a return on investment for the state applications that have already been built, they can be modified and the private sector provider. to meet unique business rules and implemented quickly in Kansas, for instance, has opted to charge small fees for cer- their state portal. This “build once, use often” philosophy has tain commercial users of the portal, primarily business own- helped governments introduce proven online services that ers, physicians, nurses, and other professionals who have to don’t have to be built from the ground up, Fraser says. register with the state or obtain a license or certificate in order to work. Kansas always collected a licensing fee for these This is the second in a series of three articles. In the final install- transactions on paper and in-person. So by adding a conven- ment, learn how to make a portal succeed. ience charge for issuing the license online, extra revenue was generated to help pay for the portal’s development and ongo- ing upkeep. Under this approach, part of that fee pays the private sec- tor provider that conducts the transaction, and part is rein- vested in the portal to cover the costs of building new appli- www.nicusa.com
  • 5. An eye for The Secrets of a enterprise and dialogue with citizens helps SUCCESSFUL PORTAL maintain and grow online services. art one of this series examined the benefits of out- online license renewal application, because agency Web site P sourcing a statewide Web portal to an experienced pri- vate sector provider, and part two identified the key steps in building and funding the site. Once the por- tal is up and running, how does a state ensure that it will func- tion smoothly, meeting the needs of citizens and the govern- managers had not set up all their data to be searchable through the portal. Virginia.gov is now delivering more accu- rate results by allowing agency Webmasters to easily tag their data so it appears in enterprise portal searches. Virginia Interactive is the Commonwealth’s portal partner ment for years to come? and a subsidiary of NIC Inc., which manages eGovernment sites for 21 states. Virginia Interactive led the implementation TAKE AN ENTERPRISE APPROACH of the portal’s advanced search tool and also arranged train- There are many different ways to measure success. “Adoption ing for agency Webmasters. The initiative illustrates two key is always a great benchmark,” says Gregg Rippy, the executive ingredients of successful portal expansion: rely on partner- director of the Colorado Statewide Internet Portal Authority ships and provide users with continuous training. Virginia and a former state legislator. If state agencies are using the Interactive is a real partner, Chopra says. “We initiate the pol- portal, rather than trying their own Web sites, that’s one of the icy goals, they assist in the implementation.” best indications that the portal is meeting their needs. An advantage of aligning with a private sector provider is To get those agencies onboard, it’s also important to market immediate access to an array of industry-leading solutions, the portal as an online channel, Rippy adds. When his state says Harry Herington, president of NIC. For example, NIC’s launched Colorado.gov, managers personally promoted the eGovernment portals are enhanced by strategic alliances with site in face-to-face meetings with agency directors, Microsoft, Cybertrust, Electronic Clearing House, both at the state level and in various localities. Rippy Inc. (ECHO), and Google, among others. “Our por- says that if officials didn’t take the time to explain the portal to those professionals, they’d be unlikely to use it. “It’s important to find enterprise- It’s important to find enterprise-wide opportuni- wide opportunities to grow a portal, ties to grow a portal and to ensure that the site pro- and to ensure that the site provides vides value to all participants, says Aneesh Chopra, the Secretary of Technology in the Commonwealth value to all participants.” of Virginia. The state’s portal, Virginia.gov, had early — Aneesh Chopra, Secretary of Technology success bringing agencies under a single banner, of the Commonwealth of Virginia using an enterprise approach to make the portal more sophisticated. tal offering includes outstanding solutions from other compa- Early in 2007, Virginia entered into a strategic agreement nies, which benefits states by eliminating the time and hassle with Google to enhance the portal’s search engine, which of issuing multiple procurements,” says Herington. scans for keywords and terms across individual agency sites. States find that their private sector partner can bring them The search engine mostly worked well, but results were some- the best technology and implement it at a lower cost and in times incomplete. “Driver’s license,” for instance, didn’t call less time than the state could on its own. “States do not have up the Department of Motor Vehicles page, which contains an the luxury of running a research and development shop,” says
  • 6. Herington. Government leaders have also learned to avoid networking tools and blogs in particular, which are popular building agency-specific applications that consume scarce among the next generation of voters and taxpayers, can help resources and to instead adopt technologies that many agen- the state engage in a more nuanced conversation with citizens. cies can use. State officials agree that collaborative technologies will Applications on Kansas.gov, for instance, are designed attract the younger generation of citizens to the portal. Those using an “extensible format,” which means they can be easi- future voters are in constant communication with each other ly scaled for multiple purposes and environments. “By creat- through social networking and instant messaging. Officials ing that extensibility, we’ve been able to roll out online servic- say that is how those citizens also expect to interact with es easily to other agencies,” says Kansas Secretary of State their government. Ron Thornburgh. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” In the meantime, states can take advantage of collaborative TALK TO CUSTOMERS A portal’s ultimate customers—citizens and businesses in the Citizens and businesses in a state state—are often the best source of insight into opportunities for growth. “The most important thing is finding out what your are often the best source of insight customers want,” Thornburgh says. As one of the earliest into opportunities for growth. eGovernment pioneers, Kansas has made it a top priority to engage in a constant dialogue with business owners, who help provide much of the revenue base of user fees that keep the tools to deliver more timely information to citizens. portal running. Government portals already are used to deliver updates and The state launched the Kansas Business Center after cus- information to specific user groups, either through e-mail or tomers said they wanted a one-stop destination for license RSS feeds, to which citizens can subscribe and receive cus- applications, filings, tax payments, and other transactions. tomized Web-based information updates. This can be expand- Today, users are telling officials they want to create more value ed to the population as a whole. One example: “I look at with the information they obtain through the portal. This is an Election Day, and the kind of information we can start push- opportunity to deliver customized information to banks, who ing to people either about their voter registration or their might want to receive automatic updates about important polling place,” Thornburgh says. events in the lives of their borrowers. “It makes sense that a bank with a lien against ‘ABC Corporation’ would want to MAKING GOVERNMENT INVISIBLE know of a change in officers or company name,” Thornburgh Ultimately, the greatest benefit of portals may be somewhat says. Ordinarily, banks have to ask for that information. Now, ironic: they may make government invisible. As governments it can be delivered automatically through the portal. more seamlessly deliver services, they effectively make them- selves appear less bureaucratic, and as a result, less obvious. FROM eGOVERNMENT TO eDEMOCRACY The premise of a portal is that citizens are more likely to inter- States have grasped the power of portals to deliver valuable act with one central site rather than seek out individual agen- and vital services to citizens. But what comes next? Innovative cies. As agencies unify under a single banner, they effective- technology officials are eyeing their portals’ ability to make ly create “invisible government,” says Herington. The contri- government more transparent and participatory. The next bution of individual agencies is no less significant—indeed, it phase of eGovernment, they say, is eDemocracy. is more imperative. But their separate roles are less distinct This next stage can take advantage of the proliferation in and less visible. For NIC, this is the direction in which online communications, particularly through social network- eGovernment has always been heading. ing sites, blogs and wikis, to create more avenues for dialogue “When people said ‘eGovernment,’ they meant electronic between citizens and government officials. One need only look government,” Herington says. “We always saw it as ‘efficient at the significant number of people who are voluntarily joining government’ that, when implemented properly, becomes social networks to see the future of online communication. ‘invisible government’ to citizens and businesses.” “We should think of citizens not by their geography, but by This is the third in a series of three articles. their membership in [those groups],” says Virginia’s Chopra. “If there’s a boating community, they might need a boating license, or a fishing license,” he explains. “There are five or six agencies that could congregate within that social network and provide services to this group.” Thornburgh says the next big challenge for portal managers is, “How do we push information out to the public, and more importantly, receive feedback?” This relationship goes beyond online tax and license filings. Thornburgh thinks that social- www.nicusa.com