Putting an Extra ‘E’ in Government: How State Agencies Worldwide Are Going Online

REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 6, 2001 — Like many terms created to explain how computer technology is changing modern life, “e-government” denotes different things to different people in different parts of the world.

  • For business owners in Great Britain, good e-government means not making as many trips to government offices to pick up and return tax forms and other documents.

  • For Pennsylvania citizens, it means not waiting in long lines to renew vehicle licenses.

  • In India, it means cheaper food prices and greater profits for rural farmers.

  • In Switzerland, it means a better-informed, more efficiently counted electorate at census time.

Around the world, local, regional and national governments are using PC and Internet technology to reinvent how they do their people’s business. Though uses differ, most e-government efforts share the same goal. They strive to make government more efficient, open, more responsive and more personal for constituents. In other words: more like a business. And just as computer technology has allowed businesses to increase productivity and better serve their customers, governments increasingly look to computer technology to achieve similar goals.

Microsoft sees itself as a partner in this movement much as it is in the business world — a partner with the software and other technology, along with the vision and technical services that allow governments to become true e-governments.

“E-government is above all a very sophisticated infrastructure of services working together over the Internet to better serve citizens and businesses — the customers of government,” says Mauro Regio, Microsoft’s industry manager for the public sector. “Microsoft’s .NET software and strategy are tailored to help any type of organization — whether it be a retail business or a municipal government — employ this service-based model.”

United Kingdom Gateway Opens Government “24/7”

Successful e-government, Regio says, requires government organizations to rethink — and in some cases reinvent — their relationship with citizens, businesses, employees and other public agencies in ways that increasingly Internet-savvy constituents are coming to expect. “If citizens can buy plane or theater tickets over the Internet, they will want to renew their vehicle registration or pay taxes the same way,” Regio says. “If they get a new home, they will expect to visit a single location on the Web to inform all government agencies, not a plethora of sites or offices. And they’ll expect to do all of these things at any time of day or night, seven days a week.”

In Britain, a new online service allows businesses and citizens to securely interact with the government via the Internet. A handful of services have gone online since the launch of Government Gateway in January. All government services in the United Kingdom — including those serving 200 central and nearly 500 local institutions — are to be accessible online by 2005. All will be submitted through the Gateway’s single, central access point.

Depending on the government service, users will register with either a user ID and password, or a digital certificate — an electronic credential that maintains security by employing public-key encryption technology, including digital signatures.

Already, citizens and businesses can submit tax returns online. Farmers can submit claims for subsidy payments online around the clock, any day of the year. In the coming years, these and other services — such as registering newborn children, applying for visas and registering vehicles — will also be accessible via other devices.

“We want to offer our online services packaged in such a away that will make them more attractive to citizens,” says Andrew Pinder, who has the title of “e-envoy” for the British government. “There is no point in simply providing electronic versions of existing public services.”

The U.K. government chose Microsoft as the lead contractor to build the Gateway, along with a diverse team of public and private technology partners, including Dell Computer; IT service provider Sema Group; and Viacode, a subsidiary of Royal Mail. Microsoft .NET Enterprise Servers were chosen to provide the scalability and reliability to serve the massive amounts of information and potential users. The British government also required a high degree of interoperability and the use of open standards, including those adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The Windows 2000 operating system serves as the backbone of a system that can handle hundreds of transactions a second and eventually will scale to handle 5 to 7 billion transactions a year. Biz Talk Server 2000 allows the Gateway to integrate with the legions of older, legacy systems used by different government institutions to store data and applications, without having to rebuild those systems from scratch. These Internet-enabled servers also employ industry-approved and broadly accessible standards such as eXtensible Markup Language (XML). These standards allow the Gateway to work with systems based on a variety of platforms and software. Users can access the Gateway’s registration pages with Windows-based or Macintosh computers. More browsers and platforms are planned. Any platform can be used to post transactions.

“Microsoft was part of a team that delivered a world-class enterprise solution — on time and on budget — which has successfully integrated and orchestrated our government IT systems into a central point of access for government services,” Pinder said earlier this year at Microsoft’s Government Leaders Conference. “Today, the Government Gateway project is bringing real value to our most demanding and precious resource: our citizens.”

Pennsylvania PowerPort, Microsoft Earn Rave Reviews

In the United States, many of the services that will soon be possible on Gateway are already a reality on Pennsylvania’s state government portal — and these services are changing the way people do business in the state and outside of it. Since Pennsylvania’s old Web site blossomed into a multiple-use portal last year, it has received more than 1.5 billion hits, says Scott Elliott, press secretary for the departing governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, who spearheaded the state’s drive to create what he calls

friction-free” government. In September, President George W. Bush named Ridge director of the Office for Homeland Security, the U.S. Government’s new, Cabinet-level anti-terrorism office.

In addition to filing individual and business taxes online, users of the PA PowerPort portal can renew driver’s licenses, purchase hunting and fishing licenses, register for unemployment insurance, get information about schools and job opportunities in different regions of the state, and even link to free e-mail service. Another section of the portal, the PA Open for Business Web site, offers information and many of the documents new companies need to start businesses in Pennsylvania. It also helps new entrepreneurs to develop their business plan, define what type of business they plan to start and check the availability of business names. Already, it has registered visits from every state in the nation and every continent on earth, except Antarctica.

Convenience is what convinced Ed Graffius to try online registration for two small businesses he runs. With previous ventures, Graffius ordered forms through the mail or drove from his home in the central Pennsylvania town of Huntingdon to pick them up from government offices in another town. Then, he mailed back the forms and waited. With PA Open for Business, he filled out the forms online and took advantage of the online guides, which direct users through the forms and skips sections that don’t apply to them. Then he hit the Send button. A few weeks later, he received his permits. “I got results,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “I love not having to deal with bureaucrats. It’s great.”

State officials take no offense. In fact, they are gratified that nearly 45 percent of those who use PA Open for Business do so on evenings and weekends. “That tells us that people want to do business during the hours when the government is closed — hours that are more convenient to them,” Elliott says.

State officials share credit for the success of PA PowerPort with Microsoft. The company’s software, including Biz Talk Server and SQL Server 2000, form the foundation of the portal. Microsoft software also helped Pennsylvania unify its previous hodgepodge of desktop PCs and other computer infrastructure, including six different platforms. By installing the Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 operating systems and other compatible Microsoft software through state offices, Pennsylvania reports savings of US $9.2 million in software costs over the past three years. The reduced operational costs and increased collaboration and efficiency resulting from compatible e-mail and other systems are saving the state an additional $9 million a year, Elliott says.

“Microsoft gets it,” Elliott says. “They understand Gov. Ridge’s vision for making Pennsylvania a model e-government. They understand where we want to go and have the tools to get us there.”

E-government Keeps Swiss Citizens Better Informed, Better Counted

While the U.K Gateway and the PA PowerPort make government more responsive, e-government efforts in Switzerland are taking democracy to a new level. The Swiss Parliament has, in effect, begun holding its sessions online. Along with Web-casting live video and audio of parliamentary debates, the 200-member parliament offers exhaustive stockpiles of previous debates, detailed information about members, schedules for meetings and upcoming sessions, and a Web-site section that explains major issues before the parliament and includes videos of related floor debates.

Since the site was launched in 1995, the number of user hits has grown from 10,000 per month to between 14 million and 17 million. Each day, there are around 3,000 unique user sessions. “The goal of our site is e-democracy,” says Daniel Schweizer, Internet director for the parliament. “We want to put all of the information and means for taking part in government in the hands of citizens so they can more easily execute their democratic rights.”

The Web site relies on the Windows NT 4.0 operating system, along with Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0 and Microsoft Index Server 2.0.

Other pieces of Microsoft software, including SQL Server 2000 and Windows 2000 Advanced Server, played a similarly vital role in the country’s first-ever “e-census,” conducted by the Swiss Federal Statistics Office between December 2000 and March 2001. Switzerland was only the third country — after Singapore and part of the United States — to conduct its population count and survey over the Internet. Citizens had the option of filling out the census questionnaire online or submitting forms the traditional way, by postal mail. Almost 300,000 citizens — or 4.2 percent of the 7.2 million population — chose the e-census option. Census officials are enthused by the numbers because there were no incentives for filling out the e-census questionnaire and only 30 percent of Swiss citizens were frequent Internet users at the time.

Most citizens who accessed the e-census site did so in the first weeks, creating a heavy flow of users. But the Microsoft system met the demand, serving as many as 23,000 users concurrently with no compromise in performance, census officials say. Depending on the answers to preceding questions, the e-census adapted the following questions, increasing the accuracy of data and reducing the time it took most users to an average of 18 minutes to complete 46 pages. In addition, the Federal Statistics Office was able to translate the raw data into usable, analyzable information in less time — a full year less than it took to evaluate the 1990 census. “The optimal integration among Windows 2000 Advanced Server, SQL Server 2000 and the components made our work considerably easier,” says Andreas Binggeli, e-census IT project leader.

Microsoft’s Regio says Switzerland’s e-government efforts illustrate how information technology can allow government to operate more efficiently and build a more participative model of government. “It’s great,” he says, “to see the .NET generation of software help governments save taxpayer money and make a positive social impact.”

Overcoming Concerns about E-government

Many indicators point to growing demand for e-government services. A recent Hart/Teeter poll showed more than 80 percent of Americans consider increased investment in e-government services a priority investment. In Great Britain, users began logging onto the Gateway 16 minutes after its launch — prior to any public notice of the launch. “It shows the interest is there,” says Alan Mather, Gateway project manager.

But concerns persist about security and equal access for all people. Two-thirds of Americans worry about hackers breaking into government computers, according to the Hart/Teeter poll. Regio says enhancing online security is a major concern for Microsoft. As more systems work together online, he says, technologies such as digital certificates, digital signatures and smart cards will allow governments to securely authenticate citizens and manage personal data safely and discreetly. These technologies also allow citizens to restrict access to sensitive personal information without their explicit consent, he adds.

The sensitivity of the information contained on the Swiss e-census was great, but officials know of no security problems throughout the four-month operating period. All communication between users and e-census organizers was protected through the use of 128-bit encryption, today’s highest security standard. All households received unique user identification and a password printed on the household questionnaire. After citizens answered the questions online, their IDs and passwords were disabled and all personal data was stored behind firewalls.

While governments may never be able to provide absolute guarantees that public information will never be compromised, the switch to e-government actually boosts security for governments that plan carefully. “With the various safeguards we’ve put in place, we feel our electronic systems are more secure than our older paper-based processes, Elliott says, “It would be much easier for someone to pick up a stray piece of paper or mail with sensitive information in a government office.”

Increasing the breadth of citizen access to e-government, Regio says, demands government investment, partnerships between business and government, and the use of technologies able to adapt to multiple delivery methods. The government of India’s Mahdya Pradesh state used Microsoft software, including Windows NT Server 4.0, to help set up a system of rural cyber cafes in bus depots, bazaars and shops that allow more than 500,000 villagers to conduct government business and e-commerce. Prior to the cafes, or soochanalayas , rural farmers relied on traders, who don’t always give fair prices, to purchase their goods and take them to distant markets. Unaware of prevailing prices, villagers then paid inflated rates for these and other goods. Now, farmers and villagers can track wholesale prices, without relying on traders or corrupt or uninformed government clerks.

Lalitha Rathod, a 35-year-old village woman, used one of the kiosks earlier this year to learn the price of apples at a wholesale market. “The coordinator pressed some buttons, and there it was on the screen,” she told MSNBC. “It was 50 rupees cheaper per crate than the rate in the village market.”

The next morning, she traveled to the market to buy the apples.

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