Small-Business Approach Leads to E-Government Portal Success

Washington County, VA, taps private sector expertise.
After evaluating several portal and infrastructure solutions, including Microsoft .Net, Washington County decided that an open, integrated environment across a variety of hardware and software platforms would present the most cost-effective and business-efficient e-government solution.

For help with this massive transformation, the county turned to IBM Business Partner Burk Consulting, Inc., a Tennessee-based provider of IT services. Both Burk and Washington County’s IT staff had prior development experience gained from extensive work in the private sector that they leveraged for the portal project.

The private sector skills paid off tremendously as both the county and Burk approached the e-government overhaul as a small business project. Of course, the citizens and employees were regarded as the portal’s high-touch customers that had come to expect superior service. Working with Burk Consulting, the county implemented an IBM e-government portal solution using:

  • WebSphere Portal running on a Red Hat Linux-based operating system,
  • WebSphere Application Server acting as the runtime environment for the Web programs,
  • WebSphere Host Access Transformation Services (HATS) to recognize the components of the host screens and transform them in real time to a Web interface based on a set of predefined actions such as drop-down lists, links, buttons, and customized logos,
  • DB2 Universal Database to store critical information,
  • Lotus Workplace Web Content Management tool for key word searches and simplification of content creation and management, and
  • iSeries servers.

Much like a business, Washington County had a phased approach to e-government that hinged on successful and incremental rollouts of each portion of the portal. At each phase, the project team carefully and consistently monitored resource and budget allocation to ensure they were appropriately aligned. The county didn’t move forward on the next phase until the previous one had been rigorously tested.

One critical rollout included Web-enabling the county’s budget information. While the challenge of combining a variety of operating platforms into a seamless, service-providing system at first seemed daunting, the county was able to rapidly make its property tax and budgetary applications available as HTML pages via the Internet by leveraging its open development environment.

Another crucial element was to provide private attorneys with Web access to delinquent tax information. This phase represents a core functionality of e-government, as previously attorneys had to leave their office and share the one public computer in the county building to access this information.

Addressing the schools’ e-government needs, Washington County also integrated the county’s internal information and applications through a single point of access. This was to provide all fifteen schools in the county with real-time Web access to critical financial applications. By allowing the remote schools to access financial data on demand, the e-government portal empowers the schools to manage their allocated budgets with greater efficiency. Another vital application found in the Washington County portal is GIS mapping for emergency preparedness and recovery.

These are just a few examples of the time and cost savings that Washington County has experienced through a sophisticated approach to e-government and a dedicated focus on its success.

Success: Today and in the Future

Washington County has leapfrogged its initial tech underpinnings and today has an e-government portal that transcends internal procedures and boundaries by providing seamless access to relevant online information for citizens and staff.

The new Washington County portal has evolved into an interactive Web search function that allows users access the county’s wealth of content — whether it’s county codes or ten years’ worth of meeting minutes and agendas — and easily find what they are looking for. Citizens and employees can conduct keyword searches and be able to easily access documents, and the infrastructure to support future portal growth is in place. The results of this effort are high employee productivity and increased customer and staff satisfaction, without requiring the replacement or rebuilding of its existing IT infrastructure.

In addition, the Washington County portal allows citizens to access data outside the internal network and allows the county to respond more efficiently to citizens and staff. Now, attorneys are able to retrieve information from their own office, freeing up their time to spend on more productive matters.

Moving forward, the county plans to arm building inspectors with tablet computers that connect wirelessly to the portal in real time. They will be able to check building histories, review past inspections and access property records on the inside network — all from the field. In addition, the county intends to provide emergency personnel with mobile access to the geographic information system.

Today, Washington County is considered an e-government leader. This is based on the success of their portal in meeting citizens’ and employees’ needs, as well as the business strategy behind its deployment and future evolution.

With just two years remaining from the federal e-government funds infusion — a total of $345 million over a four year period — now is the time to map out a successful portal strategy that will serve your customers today and evolve with your local, state and federal constituents in the years to come.

Nadine Culberson worked in the private sector as a software systems consultant for 12 years before joining Washington County.