If I ever go fresh-water fishing with my nephews in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I'll have a state license. Not that I'm much of an angler. I'm a great indoors type who knows more about electronic "phishing" scams than pond fishing for crappie. But thanks to Alabama's e- government initiative, I can sit at home in Virginia and click to an Alabama Web form to purchase a non-resident fishing license.
Anyone who visits a state Web portal before visiting an actual state is likely to be hunting for features exactly like this, according to a recent Forrester Research survey. The mail-in survey of nearly 67,000 households, mostly in the United States, found that about a third of those who go online have visited a government Web site. And the reasons those users gave for visiting state and local Web pages provide a useful measure of whether the sites are offering the services their constituents want most.
Tourism information turns out to be particularly popular on state sites, and Alabama's Web portal (Alabama.gov) does well on that front. The site offers a prominent directory of destinations and a downloadable screensaver with scenic photographs. It also makes it easy to subscribe to its Outdoor Alabama magazine. That's a good example of the kind of consumer publication that nearly two-thirds of all state site visitors also said they were interested in ordering.
There's a reason Alabama.gov is in tune with consumer interests. The site is maintained by Alabama Interactive, a subsidiary of government portal provider NIC Inc. This is a "self-funded," for-profit venture, with the Kansas-based company making money by charging "convenience fees" for transactions, such as selling me a fishing license. That gives the company an incentive to keep up with customer-constituent demands.
Overall, Alabama.gov's services measure up well against the survey data for state sites. But there's always room for improvement. The site is less than cutting-edge in providing some motor-vehicle-related services. A prominently linked page explains how to renew a driver's license, but the actual renewal still requires an in-person visit. Similarly, only a handful of counties, which handle vehicle registrations in Alabama, provide that service via the Web. And while the state revenue department offers an online tool for reserving a vanity license plate, users must visit a local office to obtain their plates. One useful motor-vehicle feature for approved businesses: a subscriber service that provides Web access to state driving records.
The survey responses on local government Web sites also are useful for scoring city and county Web pages. For instance, the site for my hometown, Huntsville (www.ci.huntsville.al.us), provides many of the features that local users said they want, such as public hearing schedules and a tool to pay parking tickets. There's also a link to government auctions--which turns out to be a priority for two out of five users of local sites. (In an online auction in January, Huntsville received 60 bids, ultimately topping $11,000, for a two- year-old used tractor with a blown motor.)
To see how well a Web site is delivering on the promise of e- government for ordinary citizens, this kind of survey data is a useful starting point. But broad national polls do not reflect unique local or regional needs. For example, the volcano preparedness page on the Soldotna, Alaska, city Web site (www.ci.soldotna.ak.us) is a pretty important link for residents there.
National surveys also can underplay the needs of business users. Some of the most handy tools on Alabama's portal are aimed at private- sector constituents, such as the health care employers who use a Web- based subscription service to monitor the license status of their nursing staffs. Such business users represent a small portion of the 162,000 visitors who went to Alabama.gov in December, but they might be the site's most frequent users. In terms of efficiency, their transactions might save--or even make--the state the most money.
That is the online service test that probably matters most to constituents, even those who never visit a state's Web site.
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