www.localgovernment.com: Opening the window to on-line democracy
It is the world’s largest construction project. The number of people using it will double this year alone. Its value will increase by 500 percent, exceeding $100 billion by the year 2000. Within 10 years, it will generate a market for information technology products and services that will reach trillions of dollars.
It is, of course, the Internet, originally named ARPAnet. It was born in 1969 when the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency began developing the planet’s largest computer network to prevent the U.S. military’s computer system from being destroyed in the event of a nuclear war.
The Internet went online in 1972 and has been expanding ever since with capabilities of electronic mail, interactive web sites and video-conferencing. Those capabilities made the Net a perfect fit for city and county governments.
Virtually every aspect of local government depends on communication between citizens and officials, and the Internet has made that process much more efficient. From providing a convenient spot for posting library hours to offering citizens the ability to “chat” informally with their elected officials, the Internet is becoming one of the most critical items in the local government toolbox.
Electronic Mail Currently, e-mail is the most widely available on-line tool helping local agencies communicate with their publics. Furthermore, it eases communication between agencies and jurisdictions by allowing convenient message exchange.
E-mail has the additional advantage, over other Internet tools, of being able to alert people when new information and services become available. Although more sophisticated on-line options are available, people with early computers, slower phone lines or older software can still benefit from e-mail alone.
“E-mail has really opened up a whole new arena of communication that never existed before,” Spokane, Wash., City Councilmember Chris Anderson says. “People simply do not have the opportunity to communicate on a regular basis with their elected officials. And if they have questions that need answers, they either have to send mail through our postal service or try to get through a sophisticated phone-mail system.”
Web Sites Although e-mail may be perfect for some agencies, many cities and counties want to offer more to their citizens. Using the World Wide Web, governments have been able to expand their communication options by setting up web sites.
In 1990, the Web was created so researchers around the globe could exchange documents regardless of the protocol they were using. State governments began to take advantage of the web by developing home pages. The positive reaction to those state web pages prompted city and county governments to test the Internet waters.
Now, in addition to offering e-mail capabilities, many local agencies have their own web sites that provide 24-hour-a-day access to: * chat rooms; * public records; * legislation; * business hours and office locations; * job opportunities; * permitting; and * traffic and weather updates.
For example, in Houston, the Department of Public Works and Engineering uses the Net to provide building permit information and access to application forms. Applications may be completed and submitted to the appropriate department online, and permit status may be checked electronically at any time.
The service allows contractors, architects and engineers to apply for permits, check on the inspection status of a building or locate approved permits.
The free on-line system is accessible at the public library for those who do not have computers. Also, area Builders’ Square retailers provide free work stations for contractors.
Before the Net, applying for a permit could take several hours. Now, it can take fewer than 10 minutes. Since the system has been in place, more than $13.2 billion worth of permits has been issued; 85 percent of those were approved within a day.
Information, however, is not the only thing the public can submit over the Net. The Seattle Municipal Court has an interactive web site that allows citizens to pay parking tickets. The court acknowledges receipt of a fine by e-mail and regular mail.
Court Spokesperson Tricia Stoppenbrink says, if electronic payments go up significantly, the court may eliminate paper receipts. As the parking ticket application becomes firmly established, the city anticipates that citizens will be able to pay utility bills and taxes, as well as fees for permits, licenses and facility reservations, online.
The Los Angeles Municipal Court also has created a web site that allows citizens to pay for speeding tickets electronically. Additionally, users can avoid embarrassment and save a few hours by registering for on-line traffic school. Ten branches of the L.A. Judicial District are participating in the program, which allows people to complete traffic school without setting foot outside their homes or offices.
On-line opinions In addition to using the Net for permitting and payments, local officials are tapping it to find out what their constituents think. In Portland, Maine, subscribers to a high-speed cable modem service called Road Runner can voice their opinions on hot local issues at a polling center web site. The web master examines local issues such as the goings-on at City Hall and the hot topics in the newspapers and posts them for public discussion.
Each week, questions are posted about one teen issue, one statewide issue and a wild-card topic. Subscribers give their opinions (favorable, not favorable or undecided), and the votes are tabulated and displayed on the site.
Web surfers nationwide can take the political pulse of the region by checking responses to the latest questions. However, since only Portland-area Road Runner subscribers can actually vote or participate in on-line discussion groups, local residents know they are talking with their neighbors, and local politicians know they are viewing the opinions of their constituents.
The Portland site is one example of “on-line democracy.” Already, government agencies interact with citizens using technology, and political candidates visit chat rooms and newsgroups in addition to shaking hands and knocking on doors.
In San Diego, a home page created at the request of the city council allows citizens to learn a little more about their council members. The site was so successful that other departments wanted to put information on the web as well.
Besides the information about the city’s departments, the site offers citizens a convenient way to interact with their local government. For example, through the mayor’s page, citizens can offer their views. If there is a problem with recycling or trash pick-up, users can fill out a form online and get quick results.
The police department’s web page is one of the most popular sites in San Diego (www.sannet.gov). It offers crime statistics that are updated monthly, as well as information on police department careers and auctions.
Eventually, local government web pages will offer rentable sites for citizen- or government-sponsored initiatives that will allow sponsors to gauge public opinion, recruit fundraisers and hold discussion groups.
Saving Money Local governments also are finding that the Net saves money through electronic commerce and video-conferencing.
EC4GOV (www.dmx.com/ec4gov/), an electronic commerce services master contract established by Public Technology, Inc. and the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, automates business processes through secure, open and accessible networks.
Electronic commerce maximizes government dollars by reducing transaction costs, eliminating duplication of effort and increasing competition for government purchases. Governments can receive vendor quotes and, bids and proposals; announce awards; issue and confirm purchase orders; receive shipping data and invoices; and pay bills.
Like electronic commerce, video-conferencing, another Internet option, can save government travel dollars and time. It accommodates online town hall meetings and may be used for interviews, public hearings, training and press conferences. Video-conferencing capability can be installed for as little as $1,500 for some systems, including camera and special boards for capturing video and audio.
“Video technology is forthcoming,” Spokane’s Anderson says. “I think the human factor will be brought into the communication process. It is not perfect and won’t be for a long, long time, but we will be working on it.”
Spinning a web Creating a web page does not require any special programming knowledge. With a little bit of training, any city or county department, no matter how small, can get an attractive and useful site up and running on the Web.
For example, Elizabethton, Tenn., a small town on the eastern edge of the state, has an enormous amount of information about such things as labor, utilities, taxes, education and health care available on its web site. The director and his secretary maintain the site.
According to Steven Clift, the former coordinator of North Star, Minn.’s, on-ramp to government information and services on the Internet, a local component is all a governing Web site needs to be successful. “That’s the key,” he says. “Citizens almost always start by looking for what is the most local, such as how to renew a dog license.”
Clift also recommends that web sites solicit citizen participation through e-mail. “By giving citizens an e-mail option, you are allowing them to say ‘keep me informed,” he says. “If you don’t, they won’t come back.”
In terms of cost, a simple, no frills web page can run as little as $2,000 to develop and $100 a month to maintain, according to Robert Drescher, a systems analyst in Los Angeles. Cost rises with the use of graphics. A sophisticated web page, with online forms, access to extensive material and links to other agencies and information, can run $100,000 or more.
The utility of the Internet is limited only by the creativity of the governing body. Citizens can do anything from paying bills electronically to checking on the cost of a bus ride.
Additionally, cities and counties learn from each other’s web sites. For example, a web search can provide examples of other jurisdictions’ ordinances that may serve as models for interested cities and counties.
Municipal Code Corporation (www.municode.com), based in Tallahassee, Fla., provides links to a searchable ordinance database. In the first three months of its web operation, the company received permission from more than 120 municipalities to make their ordinances available.
Where do we go from here? In the future, as technology costs drop and familiarity with it increases, local governments will more fully exploit the Internet’s capabilities. The Net establishes an “open door” atmosphere for public officials and their constituents. It also creates a window of opportunity for governments to communicate more openly with each other and to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively.
By linking imaging and Internet technologies, Maricopa County, Ariz., has streamlined its documentation capabilities and accelerated onto the Information Superhighway. In doing so, it has become the first U.S. county to publish public records online.
With a population of more than 2.3 million people, Maricopa County is one of the largest and fastest growing counties in the United States. Between 3,000 and 8,000 new documents are recorded daily in the County Recorder’s Office, and, since 1992, document imaging has made the process more manageable. Developed by Costa Mesa, Calif.-based FileNET Corp., the county’s imaging system converts paper documents into electronic images that are then stored on optical disks.
Internally, the technology provides staffers with immediate access to data, eliminating lost paperwork and boosting productivity; externally, software links the images to the Internet, allowing computer users nationwide to search and view Maricopa County’s public documents.
Since incorporating its document-imaging solution, the county has experienced benefits such as: * allowing a doubling of recording transaction volumes over the past five years with no increase in staff; * improving service to the public through Internet access and walk-in centers; * enabling sharing of recorder’s information with other county offices, including the assessor, treasurer and county transportation department; * improving control and management of recording transactions, thereby allowing the county recorder to be immediately responsive to the public; * reducing staff time spent on signature verification for election petitions and early voter ballots; and * automating the process of recording documents, automated reducing administrative costs and allowing parallel processing ofdocuments in a shorter amount of processing time.
Public reaction to the new system has been overwhelming, according to the county recorder, recording between 350 to 450 hits per day. Internet users can now search and print documents in a matter of seconds rather than requesting them from the Recorder’s Office.
Twenty-five years ago, in the process of demolishing the old Westchester County (N.Y.) courthouse, workers discovered an original copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging forgotten on a wall. That proves a powerful point about valuable papers – sometimes they get lost.
That fact, as well as concerns about efficiency and cost savings, prompted the county to “go digital.” Now, seven years after the transition from paper records to digital records began, the process is nearing completion. Initiated by County Executive Andrew O’Rourke, the transition has resulted in the electronic storage of and access to county real estate, finance, court and election documents.
County officials began incorporating digital imaging in 1990 as part of a strategic plan to reduce the government’s paper load and to improve access to documentation among its agencies and its 850,000 citizens. Currently, deeds and mortgages are digitized and microfilmed for backup, and the digital images are available to the public via workstations within the county clerk’s office.
“With this type of access to electronic data and images, any member of the community can ask about the deed on his house, and we can provide an immediate answer from a laptop computer,” says Leonard Spano, Westchester’s county clerk. Hard copies of records are obtained by requesting a laser print from the public workstations or from one of the county’s microfilm view stations.
In addition to making data readily accessible to the public, digital imaging has allowed the county to discontinue publication of libers (the books in which deeds and mortgages are traditionally stored) since 1993. As a result, the county has saved $300,000 per year in printing costs, says Robert Falco, principal systems analyst for Westchester County’s general services information systems.
Spano reports that a pilot program is underway to link the digitized deeds and mortgages to banks and law offices. Furthermore, surrounding municipalities requesting abstracts of the documents can download images from the county mainframe on dedicated T1 lines. As it has done with its real estate records, Westchester County is digitizing its financial records. Since 1992, the County Department of Finance has scanned purchase orders, claims, contracts, invoices and supporting documents daily. All county departments now have access to accounts payable records, allowing them to respond quickly to vendor inquiries; and county and state auditors are able to streamline their reviews using electronic data.
As the county continues its march on the “paperless” trail, voter registration cards and court records are being converted to electronic formats. The County Board of Elections has scanned all voter registration cards and is able to provide election officials with electronically prepared printouts of voter data and digitized signatures, thereby eliminating the need to transport and track cards at election posts.
Court summons and complaints already are being scanned, and plans call for all of the county’s legal documents to be digitized in the future. “This will lead to electronic transmission of data images between the courthouse and the county clerk’s office,” says Eugene Rogers, assistant to the county clerk’s office. “We will no longer face the current problem of boxes of documents coming and going from the courthouse.”
In the future, Westchester County officials plan to roll out imaging systems for the county executive’s office, the Department of Probation and the Department of Social Services. In addition to saving space and money for the county, the technology will allow Westchester to reallocate its human and financial resources for more productive pursuits, says John Leonard, director of information services.
“Electronic imaging gives us the ability to share documents remotely between central government and the district offices, and also to share documents with other agencies and the public,” he says. “It is going to save time and money. You cannot put a price on the benefits that an electronic imaging system can provide.”
Of course, even with today’s technologies and capabilities available, there are papers the county does not want destroyed. The original copy of the Declaration of Independence now resides in its own climate-controlled case at the County Records Center.
Wake County sits on one edge of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, an area renowned for high-quality universities, high-tech companies and an educated population. Consequently, it made perfect sense that the Wake County Public School System would make Internet access available for the more than 89,000 students, faculty members and administrators in its 106 schools.
“Internet access is something we’re implementing in response to pressure from the community to keep our students’ education up to date,” says Joel Sweatte, executive director of technology for strategic planning and administrative computing. “Wake County is full of high-tech companies with employees who send their children to our schools. They want to make sure their children are prepared to work with technology. We also wanted to provide connectivity between offices to enable the administrative staff to offer better service and work more efficiently.”
As the second-largest school district in North Carolina, Wake expects 100,000 enrolled students by the year 2000. The need for streamlined communications, instant access to information and current educational techniques increases with each semester.
To meet that need, the school’s instructional technology plan calls for one computer for every five students. The goal is to allow students, faculty and staff to communicate electronically and to have access to the educational resources available on the net.
With those goals in mind, the county issued a bond to finance a three-year project that will provide Internet access and a wide area network (WAN) to its schools. The school system chose systems integrator, SSDS, Englewood, Colo., to create and maintain a global communications network.
“When we brought the network solutions company in to start the project, we knew we wanted to connect all our schools and administrative sites with a WAN, and provide Internet access to our students,” Sweatte says. “One of our top priorities was also to keep that access safe. We wanted to prevent our children from accessing inappropriate content and to block outsiders from accessing our network.”
As the project progresses, each school will have a local area network in place, access to the system-wide WAN and physical connections to the Internet. In addition to traditional teaching methods, several schools already can access the new network and have incorporated the Internet into their curriculums as a new resource.
“Since we’ll soon have the same network access at all the locations, our next challenge is to provide enough computers for our kids to use,” Sweatte says. “After that, it is up to the teachers and kids to let the technology take them places where they can discover new ways to learn and access resources they never had before.”
The WCPSS project is currently in Phase II, which includes establishing physical connections to the North Carolina Information Highway, a local gateway to the Internet. Next, the district plans to conduct a return on investment study among a sampling of the schools and use the new technology to enrich its teaching styles and speed up administrative processes.
Escondido, a southern California city of 125,000, is a technologically savvy place to live and work. The city boasts laptop-equipped patrol cars and GIS data as well as a myriad of other computerized applications for everything from financial records-keeping to automated tracking of pavement cracks and repairs.
In 1995, the city’s mainframe system vendor announced it would no longer manufacture computers, leaving Escondido with limited support for its payroll, financial and skeletal human resources applications. Consequently, the city council decided on a long-term enterprise business solution.
The city formed a selection committee, led by Finance Director Phyllis Laderman, which decided that a Year 2000-compliant, graphically oriented, client/server product would best meet Escondido’s needs and provide paperless processing and workflow applications. A year later, after numerous site visits and product evaluations, Escondido chose financial and human resources management systems from PeopleSoft, Pleasanton, Calif.
Since the beginning of 1997, the new applications have provided Escondido with integration and automation for business processes at six locations, including the main utility office, billing and cashiering center, police department, public works center, library, in-line skating park and new senior center.
Employees, especially in benefits processing, have experienced a tremendous reduction in paper flow.
The city has combined its e-mail system with the workflow technology in the new administrative software. Workflow has been used to decentralize requisition input so purchase orders go through the necessary approvals and are delivered directly to purchasing without being printed. With new payroll and accounts payable applications up and running, the finance department has successfully processed 21,000 accounts payable vouchers in the first half of 1997, and it anticipates processing 1,000 purchase orders per month in the future. The city plans to upgrade to a new version of the software, providing additional paperless processing between departments.
In addition, Escondido’s technology department has developed a city-wide intranet to benefit users of the new system and the city’s help desk staff. The intranet, available to all employees with desktop Internet access, details the status of the software project and enables users to get answers to questions online. Employees can also access online training manuals through the intranet.
A 1998 project will allow employees access to a self-service, human re-sources intranet site that will let them view, enroll in or change benefits electronically. The site also will automate employee evaluation procedures by enabling managers to write, approve and route evaluations electronically. Furthermore, managers will be able to administer pay changes and approvals from their desktops.
But, Escondido, a semi-finalist in Harvard University’s 1996 Innovations in American Government program, has not stopped with Internet development. Like many municipalities, it has set up a web site for residents to view municipal code books and e-mail city council members. Additionally, the city plans to provide an Internet site that allows nearly 3,000 vendors to look up the status of invoice payment and purchase orders, saving employees several hundred phone inquiries each month.
Currently, only employees with the new financial or human resources applications are able to conduct two-way administrative processing. However, in the near future, upgraded administrative software will provide a Java client, thereby eliminating the need for a direct link into the system database. As a result, Escondido’s cyber-savvy population will be able to process information instantly from any computer with web access.