GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Developing responsive services online
Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill always attributed his success in public service to the axiom that all politics is local. City and county planners should never lose sight of the fact that every element of public planning should be local — especially when entering the murky depths of cyberspace.
Developing a government web site requires input from residents as well as other government officials and agencies. In particular, sites with e-commerce capability need to be constructed with residents in mind because they will be active participants in online transactions.
As a starting point for constructing an effective Internet strategy, cities and counties should develop an inventory of typical questions and public concerns. For example, will a specific group of communities want the ability to pay taxes online, or will they be more concerned about their ability to report potholes and receive status reports on local highway construction projects?
Public officials can find out answers to those and other questions by distributing surveys and questionnaires to every home in the district, soliciting feedback from community and civic organizations, and polling employees in every branch of government, from the sheriff’s office to the sanitation department.
Once public officials develop a list of thoughts and concerns that are customized to their specific districts, they may want to turn to an outside firm to create their web sites. Professional internet strategists can turn the agency’s wish list into a consistent long-termplan, but they may also recommend possibilities that the public did not realize.
Some sites, such as Chicago’s, offer feedback buttons, where visitors can post questions, compliments or complaints. But that is just a simple path to public interaction — many local governments are making sites more personal by: * creating virtual town hall meetings online, where visitors can read through a list of pending issues and click on a “support” or “don’t support” icon. They also can rank issues by level of importance and draw attention to other concerns or issues that may not be listed; * sorting responses into reports, with percentages and priorities, to help officials keep their fingers on the pulse of the people; and * detecting users’ Internet habits to tailor the city or county presentation accordingly. For example, if a user has a history of visiting environmental sites, the municipal site could detect that interest and highlight the area’s wildlife or conservation policies on the home page or similar pages.
The e-commerce portion of a web site requires significant planning because it involves online transactions. Typically, an e-commerce candidate provides and/or sells some type of product or service online; in the case of government, that applies to motor vehicle tags, taxes and a host of forms and applications. By converting or migrating its business and marketing activities into e-commerce, a government can reduce direct sales activities and associated marketing costs. As e-commerce business increases for a government, the opportunity exists to proportionally reduce bureaucracy.
However, a government serious about an e-commerce program must be willing to cut costs and to break away from traditional approaches to public management. The city or county must offer savings to potential end users in order for e-commerce to succeed. Additionally, all sites require regular maintenance to keep information up to date and ensure smooth operations.