With their sights set on a lucrative market, companies are elbowing each other out of the way for the chance to set governments up with e- government capability--for free. What do they want in exchange? Just a piece of the action, typically some or all of a fee charged on top of each electronic transaction.
Some of the upstart players are signing up high-profile former public officials to lend their efforts visibility and legitimacy. Former Georgia Governor Zell Miller, for example, is promoting Atlanta-based ezgov.com. Maynard Jackson, Charles Royer and Bruce Todd, former mayors of Atlanta, Seattle and Austin, Texas, respectively, are lending their support to govWorks.com, a New York-based company.
Governments have been slow to move to e-commerce, fretting over the upfront costs and technical difficulties inherent in making it possible to pay parking tickets or apply for building permits online. That's a business opportunity for the new companies, as well as for established players such as EDS, IBM, Lockheed Martin IMS and National Information Consortium. "Government is clearly lagging behind the private sector in the adoption of technology in general, and particularly transactional technology," says Kaleil D. Isaza Tuzman, co-founder of govWorks.com. "Action has a price, but non-action has an enormous price."
Doubters in government point out that the services aren't really free. Either the citizens or the governments would have to pay the transaction fees (although governments would still save money thanks to the efficiencies of e-commerce). And there are concerns that the companies' profit motives would drive which services make it online.
But many more officials are swayed by the offer of outside assistance to help speed them into the electronic future. So far, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Stamford, Connecticut, are among cities testing govWorks.com's online link to local government. In ezgov.com's camp are Atlanta, the state of Georgia, several Georgia counties and Summit County, Ohio.
Not everyone is going the free-lunch route. The city of Conyers, Georgia, population 8,000, will end up paying about $600,000 for an online system that allows residents to do many of the same electronic transactions as the aforementioned "free" systems. But the system, being provided by VC3 Inc., also provides an accountability feature, a complaint line and other services that do not focus on revenue or transaction fees. Residents can sign on to complain that their garbage wasn't picked up or to report a pothole, and the next morning those requests are routed to the appropriate city department.
"We make sure as managers that we review requests, get back in a timely manner and that requests are filled accurately," says Sandra Warren, director of technical services and customer services.
At Tuesday staff meetings, the city manager has printouts of work orders, and agencies must explain why a pothole didn't get filled or a pet license wasn't processed in a timely way. In addition, city council agendas and meeting minutes, as well as job openings, are posted online in real time. Most people who live in Conyers work 25 miles away in Atlanta, making it inconvenient to visit city offices during daytime hours and useful to have an electronic way of doing business.
The system may not be free, but Conyers is pleased with its many added features. And such a small city isn't as practical a target for companies looking for transaction volume to earn their investment back.
Speaking of free, Colorado has on board a chief information officer who works for the state for nothing.
Oh, sure, Paul Quade gets a salary. But he is paid by Galileo International, the global travel distribution company where he was director of data center planning and engineering before the company lent him to the state of Colorado.
How did Colorado manage such a deal? Quade had been serving as one of the private-sector representatives on a strategic technology oversight commission for the state, pressing for several technology initiatives. Governor Bill Owens thought Quade could bring a lot to the state's technology efforts.
So Owens approached Quade's company, and Quade became an 18-month private-sector loan. He now works three weeks a month for Colorado and one week for Galileo, with his full salary paid by the company. The company, with more than a thousand employees in the state, figured what was good for Colorado technologically would end up being good for it as well.
Quade thinks his limited tenure is a plus. "I don't have to live long-term in this environment," he says. "I can express truly what I think and believe is right for the state." One of his final tasks before his state stint ends on February 28, 2001, will be to hand-pick a successor, the first chief information officer paid for on the state's dime.
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