Government veers onto the Web

Feds change course to make efficient self-service the name of the game

Imagine if dealing with the government online were as easy as dealing with Amazon, Dell, or Southwest Airlines. Want a building permit? No problem. Have to track a benefits check? Just a few clicks.

A strong push is on at all levels of government to make online self-service a reality. Responding to budgetary pressures and taxpayers’ rising expectations, cities such as New York and Chicago have implemented “311” programs to provide citizens with points of contact for nearly all government issues. Florida is among the states leading the way in putting traditionally time-consuming services online. And in response to the E-Government Act of 2002, federal agencies are scrambling to deploy self-service Web-based solutions to improve service to citizens and make their own workforces more efficient.

But in terms of enabling self-service government, the United States lags behind a number of countries, including Canada, Japan, and especially the United Kingdom, which has mandated that all government services must be available via the Web by next year. Self-service government in the United States is “all over the map,” says Greg Gianforte, CEO of applications vendor RightNow. “Some [governments] are really leading-edge, and there are some that are still in the dark ages.”

What will it take to make the self-service vision a reality? Technology must be deployed to provide intuitive interfaces, authentication, and security and to integrate a tangle of legacy systems. Moreover, agencies must restructure their business processes and stovepiped bureaucracies to place the citizen experience at the center.

Down to basics

The ultimate goal of self-service government is to combine a set of time-consuming interactions into a single, seamless experience. But most agencies start with a more modest aim: putting a simple information request process or transaction online. Even this requires the successful implementation of basic technology ranging from knowledge management applications to Web and e-mail self-service tools.

“In many government organizations, the same information gets requested over and over again,” RightNow’s Gianforte says. “This is really the largest opportunity for doing more with less.” But, as Gianforte notes, the content people seek is often spread out over many different systems.

Creating a centralized knowledge base that both covers the most common questions and is easy for citizens to navigate is crucial. These knowledge bases must be kept organized and updated through strong knowledge-management processes, an area where government struggles, according to Anurag Juneja, vice president of services and solutions at eGain.

“People are a little hesitant to make the investment” in a centralized knowledge authoring team, Juneja says, adding that such a team is crucial to creating “an experience that customers would actually like to come back to.”

Juneja notes that users searching the Internal Revenue Service’s Web site for information about the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) might find as many as 100 documents, get frustrated, give up, and call the agency’s hotline. If instead they had found a simple case-based approach to explaining the AMT, they’d be more likely to use self-service the next time, Juneja says.

“Listening to what people want to know and putting the answer in language they will understand” is crucial, agrees Janice Mosher, manager of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Customer Service Center, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. In 2003, Mosher’s group implemented a knowledge base to provide Web self-service answers to import immigration- and agriculture-related questions. She believes that in addition to providing clear answers agencies must enforce usage of self-service channels by making it difficult to go straight to assisted support.

“If you give people a shot at you personally answering their questions, they will take it,” Mosher says. “Most people do not want to research.”

On the transactional side of self-service, security is a key issue, and many agencies are exploring authentication technologies ranging from SSO (single sign-on) to digital signatures.

“Putting those technologies in place is still in the early stages of adoption,” says Curtis Clark, manager of public sector e-business solutions at IBM. Clark says most agencies start out with basic user ID and password schemes; the IRS, for example, uses simple codes to accept online tax filings. Others, such as the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, use work-arounds that allow users to fill out document requests online but then require them to fax in a signature page.

Matching systems to needs

Most government self-service technology differs little from self-service technology deployed in the private sector. But government organizations have unique characteristics and business models that influence how this technology gets developed and deployed.

First, governments are big. “Not many companies have 275 million constituents,” notes Don Arnold, director of federal government business development at PeopleSoft. Government Web sites experience huge spikes in activity at certain times of the year, such as tax filings in April or the back-to-school rush. And with millions of employees, the government must design its inward-facing self-service projects so they can scale to massive proportions. For example, the Defense Integrated Military Human Resources System -- a pilot program that currently allows 20,000 sailors in the Persian Gulf to change their benefits packages online -- will ultimately roll out to the whole military.

Second, governments perform a lot of case management. From parole and immigration officers to tax auditors, government employees are constantly taking inquiries and applications, opening cases, and working to resolve them over time. Web-based capabilities can make these employees more efficient.

“One of the next big trends will be building intranet applications to aggregate information for social services workers from various systems and present it to them in integrated form, including case files, calendars, and collaborative tools to talk to colleagues in the field,” IBM’s Clark says.

IBM and Siebel Systems are building case-management capabilities and case objects into their core platforms and data models in a bid to provide self-service capabilities to both government case workers and the numerous third-party providers affiliated with government agencies.

Finally, lacking a profit motive, government agencies tend to evaluate projects in a different manner than private companies do. “In the private sector, the primary driver [behind self-service] has been to reduce costs,” RightNow’s Gianforte says. “But that’s not necessarily the key driver in government.” Gianforte explains that because it’s typically harder for governments to lay off employees, the ROI of a self-service project may not be as tangible, so the focus shifts to providing higher-quality services.

“Governments are not used to identifying and setting key performance metrics up front,” says Brian Stone, public sector general manager at Siebel Systems, adding that government programs typically get funded by legislative mandate and are rolled out without a baseline, making it difficult to measure ROI.

Hosted solutions

In an effort to overcome some of these organizational issues and to get going quickly with constituent self-service, many governments are turning to hosted solutions. RightNow reports that more than 50 percent of its government customers choose a hosted option. Siebel’s Stone says he’s starting to see increased adoption of hosted self-service applications especially at the state and local level, “where budgets and IT programs are fiscally challenged.”

U.S. Customs’ Mosher says vendor hosting made it easy for her department to get going with Web self-service. “If we had hosted it here, it was going to have to go through a huge review process because of our infrastructure, protections, and firewall issues,” she explains. “The fact that it wasn’t going to take any internal resources to maintain it, monitor it, tweak it, to do internal patches -- our IT people loved it.”

One-click government quest

The Holy Grail of government self-service is the single point of online contact with government -- the one place to do all your government business online, quickly and efficiently. Now that a first generation of self-service point solutions is up and running, the focus of many government agencies has shifted to services integration and to improving the end-user experience.

“The way [we] separate departments isn’t conducive to the public being able to find their answer the fastest,” says Darlene Gardner, IS manager at the Clerk Recorders Office of Santa Clara County, Calif. Gardner, who manages a self-service records repository project, says, “Some data is on the assessors’ system, and some is on our system. They come and find our data OK, but then they’d love to find more data on the property -- but gee, that’s another system.”

Although legacy systems integration is a key part of services integration, the primary challenge is organizational: breaking down organizational silos and bureaucracies to get integrated processes working. IBM’s Clark points to cross-agency initiatives in Miami-Dade County and the federal government (firstgov.gov) as evidence that integrated services are starting to appear. “They’re beginning to get a significant amount of momentum around designing e-government services around citizen experiences,” he says.

But to make this a reality, government agencies must not simply focus on technology architecture, says Bob Jones, director of the government business unit at webMethods. They must also fundamentally rethink how their services work. “It’s really [about] looking back at their business processes, finding a common theme,” Jones explains. “That analysis has to happen. The technology infrastructure is there.”

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