Best Of The Web, First Place Local Government
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November 15, 1999

By Steve Towns, Government Technology Magazine, 1999

Internet sites from Washington state and Boston set the standard for providing online, electronic government, according to a panel of judges from state and local technology organizations.

The sites captured first place in Government Technology's fourth annual Best of the Web contest, topping a field of 120 entries. Judges said both sites mixed user-friendliness and vast amounts of information with convenient electronic services, letting citizens perform common government transactions without leaving their homes.In all, the panel of judges selected six winning Web sites -- three each from state and local governments. Web pages from second-place Georgia and third-place South Dakota followed Washington's top-ranked Access Washington site, while trailing Boston's winning site were second-ranked Chicago and third-ranked San Diego County.

Best of the Web entries were evaluated by representatives from Government Technology, the National Association of Counties, the North Dakota League of Cities, the International City/County Management Association, Public Technology Inc. and State Technologies.

Judges looked for quick-loading, easy-to-navigate Web pages offering efficiency-boosting features like online transactions and downloadable forms and applications.

"The top sites are putting the concept of electronic government into practice," said Government Technology Chief of Staff Cathilea Robinett, the contest's director. "Access Washington is one of the best sites I've ever seen -- hands down. And Boston has developed interactive government applications that let you pay parking fines and excise taxes online."

Overall, 1999's Best of the Web entries show government making broad strides in harnessing the Internet's potential, said Robinett. "Across the board, I saw more e-government than last year. The sites are getting much better."

Defying Convention
Washington set out to shatter the traditional government Web-page boundaries with its top-ranked Access Washington site, according to Claire Donahue, acting director of the state's Department of Information Services (DIS). By nearly any measure, that effort was a success. Besides winning Best of the Web honors this year, the site captured an outstanding information technology achievement award from the National Association of State Information Resource Executives.

"One of our key objectives was to deliver government information and services in a way that would be usable to citizens and business owners," said Laura Parma, manager of interactive technologies for DIS. "So instead of organizing and delivering information by the organizational structure of government, we really turned that around and made it more topical."

The result is a government Web site that doesn't look or work like a government Web site. Rather than scrolling through a list of state agencies to locate information or services, users choose from broad categories like education, business and public services. The categories offer a range of appropriate information and electronic services.

Clicking on the "business" button, for example, transports users to a menu that includes the state's electronic tax-filing application, a business-license-status application, online registration for new businesses and a wealth of business-related information.

Grouping online information and services logically, rather than according to government's existing organizational structure, makes it easier to citizens to find what they need, said Parma. "If I want to start a business in Washington, I'm not concerned about which agency provides which kinds of information and services."

Washington unveiled its electronic business-tax-filing system in pilot form last year, said Donahue, targeting small businesses. Now the state is rolling out the application to a broader audience, she added. "It's getting up to industrial strength as we speak."

The application produces customized business-excise-tax forms, performs automatic tax calculations and offers current rules and rate information. Businesses pay their excise taxes online via Electronic Funds Transfer when they submit a tax return over the Internet.

Besides online applications, Access Washington includes innovative features designed to draw browsers to the site. For instance, users will find e-mailable electronic "postcards" with images of Washington landmarks, an online Washington trivia game called WaWizQuiz and a large government news section that is updated daily.

The news section, in particular, is the result of government-wide cooperation, said Donahue, noting that Access Washington secured commitments from public information officers statewide to provide a steady flow of fresh information.

"We wanted this to be a portal -- not just another Web page," she said. "We don't like things to look like government. We wanted to be competitive for attention with what's out there from private industry."

Understated Excellence
While lacking the visual flash of some other Best of the Web entries, Boston's uncluttered interface, simple navigation and innovative applications propelled it to the number-one position among local government home pages.

The site was among the first local government Web pages to let businesses pay excise taxes online and allow citizens to electronically settle parking fines, according PTI Director of Online Services Dale Bowen, a contest judge. Given surging government interest in e-commerce applications, he said, Boston's highly functional site provides a model for other cities.

"Boston is out there a year or two ahead of everyone else; that's why the site appealed to me," said Bowen. "I think you're going to see, over the next year, a flood of those types of applications."

The city collected more than $200,000 through 2,300 online excise-tax transactions during the tax application's first two months of operation. Kyle Tager, Boston's manager of online services, said the tax system is just a first step in the city's ambitious electronic-government plans.

"It certainly is a model for all the e-commerce transactions that we plan to implement in the near future," he said. "This fall, we're implementing property-tax payments online. And we're working on developing a means for putting birth, death and marriage certificates online. [Eventually], anything and everything you have to come to City Hall for, you'll be able to do online."

But the Boston Web page doesn't just offer advanced applications, noted Bowen. It also delivers those functions in a spare, logical fashion. For example, all of the city's online services -- from excise-tax and parking-fine payments to dog licensing and job searches -- are grouped under a "transactions" button at the top of the home page.

"Some other cities offer things like the ability to pay parking tickets, but they are buried," Bowen said. "[Boston's site] seemed to be much more customer friendly."

Tager said the site's straightforward design reflects its mission of providing reliable, online government transactions. "

When we made the decision to go e-commerce, we knew that we had to provide an easy tool for people to use. If they had to wait to download a silly graphic, that wasn't going to help," he said. "We also knew that if someone's going to give us their credit-card number, then this better be a Web site that really looks like it's officially the city of Boston."

Tager and his five-member Web team strive to ensure that all information is no more than two clicks away, and simplified the city's convoluted organizational structure for Web users.

To keep the site current, the Web team created back-end tools allowing city departments to update their online data though a password-protected browser. Those tools also are being rolled out to citizens, enabling them to post upcoming community events and other information. Citizens send Web submissions to neighborhood coordinators, who screen the information before posting.

"We're trying to automate as much of the site as we can, and we're trying to spread out the responsibility for that information as much as possible," said Tager.

An Early Innovator
Georgia's site, a pioneer in placing useful information and services on the Internet, continues to improve, according to the judges. The site captured second place on the strength of its vast, online offerings. Judges said Georgia's site may not be as user friendly as some other top entries, but the Web page delivers a stellar selection of data and online services to those willing to hunt for it. Among other things, users can register for college, purchase Geographic Information System data, search unclaimed property, hunt for jobs and download numerous forms and manuals.

"The site is just so robust," said Government Technology's Robinett. "There's almost nothing they haven't thought of -- and they're always working on the next evolution."

Among the site's newest features is an online tour of the Georgia governor's mansion, giving virtual visitors a chance to browse the facility's interior and the grounds surrounding it. The application provides a 360-degree view of most rooms, including private areas not usually open to the public, according to the state. Hot buttons offer a close-up view of the mansion's many antiques and collectibles.

An Attractive Presence
Chicago's Web site, second in the local government category, earned recognition for providing an eye-pleasing and easily navigable gateway to city information and services. The latest version of the site benefits from a thoughtful makeover designed to help citizens quickly find what they need, judges said.

Furthermore, Chicago has steadily added interactive functions to the page. For instance, citizens can now search an online database for registered sex offenders living in their neighborhoods, or shop at the city's Internet-based store. Online building permits and downloadable tax forms also are available.

One of the site's most impressive features is its year-2000 section, said PTI's Bowen. The section provides an extensive Y2K overview, a glossary and separate categories of information for homeowners and businesses.

"They put a lot of information up and have some nice features," said Bowen. "Some Y2K sites are simply a disclaimer. Chicago has really taken [the site] several steps beyond that. They're taking the issue very seriously."

Strong Contenders
Rounding out the Best of the Web winners were strong Internet sites from South Dakota and San Diego County.

Judges said South Dakota's third-place finish was due to its tremendously functional One example of that functionality is a huge, searchable index of common citizen interactions with government. Under the heading "Get it Done in SD," the section lists nearly any government-related task a citizen could encounter and gives detailed instructions for accomplishing such tasks.

"I spent time on the vital records path," said Connie Sprynczynatyk, executive director of the North Dakota League of Cities. "After experiencing the pain of standing in line for vital-record searches, the pleasure of an online search with a credit-card transaction was great."

Other links connect Web users to a menu of online services and updated legislative information, both of which are particularly valuable in a state where most residents live more than 100 miles from the capital.

San Diego County took third with a Web site offering online transactions, live election-night results, downloadable forms and some unusual search functions.

The site lists 20 options under the heading of online services, including applications allowing users to pay property taxes, download and purchase assessor's parcel maps and search for tax-defaulted properties. In addition, users may search the county marshal's arrest-warrant database, and a "Who's in Jail?" application that allows citizens to query the county jail's inmate log.

"The county offers a lot of online applications and, graphically, the site is very well thought out," Robinett said.

The winners of the Best of the Web contest sponsored by Cabletron, Dell, Oracle, State Technologies and SunTREC Labs at theUniversity of California, Davis collected their awards Sept. 15 during a presentation dinner and ceremony at the Government Technology Conference in Albany, N.Y. In addition, where winners demonstrated their sites during the conference. 



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