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The Best Get Better

Darby Patterson
October 2002
Government Technology Magazine

Every year the Best of the Web entries become more competitive, reflecting the ever-increasing value of electronic government. From online services that offer greater convenience for citizens to internal efficiencies created by sharing technologies among government agencies, the 2002 Best of the Web winners demonstrate the power of the government portal through online services that offer greater convenience for citizens and internal efficiencies from government agencies sharing technologies.

"There was a time when the winners of Best of the Web were clearly discernable," said Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the Center for Digital Government. "It's very good news that it has become extremely difficult to choose winners because the overall quality of all the entries is excellent."

Nearly 300 jurisdictions entered the annual Best of the Web contest, sponsored by Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, EZ Gov Inc., NIC, Computer Associates, Accenture and Veritas. A panel of judges evaluated entries based on innovative use of Web technology to improve citizen service and access to government; boost efficiency; and deliver cost savings. Winners were named in separate state and local government categories.

State Government

The My Virginia portal took first place in the state division by offering a gateway to dozens of online government services and other resources, including links to local government Web sites.

"In Virginia, we have focused delivery on the best way to meet customer needs instead of how government has always delivered services," said George Newstrom, secretary of technology for the commonwealth. "The focus of our Web portal is to put the needs of our customers first. That includes easy navigation, efficient transactions and cost-saving processes." Both Newstrom and Gov. Mark Warner are strong advocates of digital government.

The Virginia portal allows users to create customized Web pages that deliver information to match their interests. VIPNet clearly discloses that "cookies" are used to support this technology, but that no personal information is saved, tracked or sold. Virginia also is among the first states to provide wireless access to its government portal.

Further strengthening the portal's user-friendliness, My Virginia offers live help. This real-time customer service feature allows users to chat online with the state's help-desk staff, and it provides them with a transcript of the online discussion. Finally, the portal also is accessible for people with disabilities ? the site applied accessibility guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), including elements of W3C's new, not yet published, 2.0 guidelines.

Maine placed second, demonstrating that a state need not be large to be mighty in the delivery of digital government.

"I have always believed that one of the great advantages of the Web is that it doesn't matter how big an organization you have or how much money you spend, if you have creativity," said Gov. Angus King. "And we've got a great team here. Our motto is, 'Think of yourself as the customer.'"

Interesting features include "RemindME" profiles, which allow agencies to send reminders to residents about important events, such as vehicle registration renewals and tax payments.

"I think the challenge we faced ? and we agonized over it ? is you want the maximum amount of information and access built into your portal without it being cluttered," said King, who actively participated in the site's development. "We are in a state of continuous improvement to the site, and frankly, although we have a beautiful site, I think that five years from now we will look back at this portal as quaint and insufficient. But, that is the nature of technology."

Washington State and Pennsylvania -- two perennial IT powerhouses -- tied for third place in the state category. Access Washington is a mature portal that's continued to increase its online services and refine its features. Since its launch in early 2001, usage has grown by approximately 80 percent. The site delivers more than 300 online transactions. PA PowerPort is the focal point of Gov. Mark Schweiker's efforts to make Pennsylvania state government "friction-free" for citizens and businesses, and to present a single face of government. The state continues to add e-government services to the portal, giving citizens access to government services around the clock.

Indiana's portal ranked fourth in the contest and Texas Online fell into a fifth-place tie with newcomer Mississippi, which made a strong financial commitment to electronic government during a relatively tough fiscal period.

Local Government

Topping the local category in this year's Best of the Web is the Tampa, Fla., portal, which is rich in interactive, easy-to-navigate applications. Searching records from city agencies is easy and online payment of various fees nets Tampa an average of $100,000 each month.

Citizens can access dynamic GIS maps of the city, along with maps containing crime statistics overlaid on specific locations. Services include the payment of traffic fines, application for and purchase of construction permits, and utility bill payments. To encourage the use of these services, Tampa's portal offers a "savings calculator," so residents can compare the cost of an online transaction to the expense of a personal visit to City Hall. The Web site not only complies with W3C accessibility guidelines, it meets the more stringent federal Section 508 accessibility rules.

The portal offers a personalization feature that includes the creation of user information database that can be applied to other online services. Users can track their own history of transactions with the city, print receipts for payments and submit applications for employment. Rick Smith, director of the city's Department of Planning and Management, said Tampa has particularly benefited from the online employment application.

"From our end, our folks love it because all the information is keyed in accurately and the application is complete," he said. "You can't send it if its not." Smith said subscriptions to the employment site went from just a handful to more than 800 shortly after the service launched.

Smith said a team of city officials meets regularly to assess the site's use and make changes in response to public input. "One of the things we are most proud of is that we did everything without committing any public funds," he said, adding that he looks forward to the time when the city is positioned to moderate or absorb the convenience fees that fuel the self-funded portal ? a move he thinks will catapult use of the site "into the stratosphere."

The Miami-Dade County Web portal took second place in the local government category. The site boasts some unique features, including an "Under the Sea City" section created to help school-age youngsters learn about government, promotes diversity and builds civic consciousness.

Online services include payment of parking citations ? a feature that produces more than $4,000 a day in payments to the city. The results of building inspections are posted directly to the site from handheld devices carried by inspectors in the field. A visit to the Fire Rescue Web site allows users to monitor active calls from the county's 911/CAD dispatch center.

In third place is a cooperative effort between the city of Indianapolis and Marion County, Ind. The IndyGov portal offers more than 140 interactive services and 19,000 documents. Continued collaboration between the government partners keeps the site updated and populated with new information and services.

The site displays polling places and provides zoning information; GIS maps provide data on incident reports from law enforcement agencies; and a Web viewer application allows users to look at different configurations of maps, zoom in to specific details and customize map layouts.

Online transactions have significantly improved efficiency for both jurisdictions. In 2001, the city and county logged a total of 13,022 online filings that saved an estimated 3,250 hours ? the equivalent of two staff positions ? in the permits division. Accessibility was also a focus of the site's redesign, and W3C disability standards were integrated in the portal's development.

The city and county of Honolulu took fourth place in the competition. Services available on the portal include live traffic cameras that track congested highways, another camera trained on Waikiki Beach, GIS applications dedicated to economic development, archived streaming video of city events and a feature that allows users to send e-cards.

The Dallas bilingual Web portal took fifth place. The city leverages technical infrastructure offered by the state of Texas ? an arrangement that allows Dallas to greatly expand its Web offerings at lower costs.

Overall, Robinett said local government Web sites have made remarkable progress over the past year, adding features that bring genuine value to citizens.

"It is particularly gratifying to see how many cities are building 'city hall online' applications that allow residents to participate in decisions that directly affect them," she said. "It's good news that the Best of the Web competition gets more difficult to judge with each passing year. We welcome the challenge and congratulate all the winners."