Portals Do Their Civic Duty

States are lining up to give citizens online access to services

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 5, 2002

7 Min Read

Before launching its Web portal last year, the state of Michigan had seen its online presence mushroom out of control. Some 100 departments had independent Web sites, each using different portal and hosting vendors. The result was an inefficient patchwork of online information.

Citizens had to know the proper department and service they wanted in order to find what they were looking for, says Stephanie Comai, director of the e-Michigan office, created in May 2000 to simplify the state's online efforts.

Michigan turned to IBM to build a centralized portal that offers a single point of entry for residents. The site allows E-payments and procurement services powered by IBM's WebSphere CommerceSuite. Since the revamped portal was launched last July, the benefits have been clear. Traffic on the portal is double what it was for the 100 sites combined. The state is saving $2.5 million a year by consolidating with a single hosting service, and it's slashing another $750,000 annually by automating the process of entering form data submitted by applicants seeking child-care subsidies.

The effort to move as many transactions as possible onto the portal is also forcing the state to take an overdue look at its business processes. "You don't want to automate a bad process," Comai says.

Michigan wasn't the first state to develop a portal, but the immediate impact of Michigan.gov illustrates why a growing number of states are launching and updating similar portals. Minnesota and New Mexico are set to launch soon, and New Hampshire, Vermont, and West Virginia are gearing up to go live, too. Maryland and Colorado have introduced their portals within the past few months; Alabama and Georgia recently awarded contracts for portal development, and Missouri is evaluating vendor proposals.

The new generation of portal technology is helping states turn their Web sites into transactional hubs and is transforming their bureaucracies into customer-centric organizations. Many of the newer state portals let visitors do everything from obtaining various types of licenses to paying their in-come taxes.

States are proving more innovative in portal deployments than their private-sector counterparts in many cases, Delphi Group analyst Hadley Reynolds says. Portal technology is ideal for government because of the breadth of services states offer, the size of their constituencies, and the need to connect the two. "It's such a natural for state governments to move as much of their business as they can to the Web," he says. "In some ways, they get more bang for the buck from their portal implementations than businesses." Portals help government connect with citizens, provide a unified face to the public, and automate paperwork.

Sometimes, how much money a state has to work with is the issue. Minnesota's redesigned portal is slated to launch this month with applications that let residents file and pay their state income taxes and renew vehicle registrations, but it could be much more. Minnesota has 1,600 services that could benefit from being automated via the portal, says Reggie David, the state's assistant technology commissioner. "That's just the tip of the iceberg when you think about the number of processes conducted by the state," David says. The state was limited by its $1 million budget, she adds, which prevented Deloitte Consulting from creating more transactional functionality between the BroadVision Inc. portal and back-end systems.

New Mexico had even less financial flexibility, so it's taken an even more frugal approach. With a $700,000 portal budget, state CIO Bob Stafford chose to emphasize localized content control, turning to IBM Global Services to deploy Vignette Corp.'s content-management technology over a WebSphere back end. The site is aimed at making navigation simpler by getting residents to the service they're looking for within a couple of clicks. Transactional applications will be hosted locally by the 30 state agencies linked to the portal, and each agency will be able to make changes independently to whatever content it posts to the main site.

Even deep-pocketed states have discovered that the simplest applications can be the most popular and cost effective. Take California, which spent $2.4 million developing Ca.gov, the portal it launched in January 2000, and allotted another $2.4 million during the current fiscal year to continue expanding the site. The portal attracts 3.5 million unique visitors each month, says Arun Baheti, director of E-government for Gov. Gray Davis' office. The most popular application on the portal lets more than 1 million residents a year schedule motor-vehicle department appointments.

States with limited budgets should take that as a sign that they don't need to launch costly portal efforts with sophisticated E-commerce applications, Baheti says. "If they start small and show value, they'll build political support," he adds.

The growing use of portals is convincing more states that the time for adoption is now, says Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the Center for Digital Government, a national technology research organization for government agencies. The fact that Alabama, which hasn't been on the forefront of most IT trends, is working on a portal is a major indicator of just how widespread the state portal trend is, Robinett says. She credits E-government vendor NIC with spearheading the portal charge with state IT departments long before other vendors began wooing them.

Alabama became NIC's 16th state portal project in December, and the state's first E-government application--which will let nurses renew and pay for their professional licenses online--is expected to debut later this spring. NIC will continue developing online applications for all state agencies, boards, and commissions, and will implement a consistent look and feel for all sites run by the state.

At the crux of the change in the way Alabama, Michigan, New Mexico, and other states view their portals is an effort to recast their constituents as customers. Doing so forces states to focus on replacing antiquated processes with a more sophisticated customer-service orientation.

Massachusetts officials had that in mind when developing Mass.gov, the state's new portal, which will be officially unveiled this month. One of the new portal applications, WebFile for Employers, lets businesses file and pay state income taxes online. Jeffrey Houston, principal of Advanced Payroll, a two-person payroll-services company in Provincetown, Mass., is using the application to pay taxes and other levies for 1,700 workers employed by his 53 small-business clients. Previously, he had to cut checks and mail paperwork to various agencies for withholding, unemployment insurance, workforce training, and unemployment health-insurance contributions. Now, one transaction per client does the trick. "To do it all in one place certainly makes my life a lot easier," Houston says.

The Massachusetts portal was built by Titan Systems Corp. using technology from portal vendor Epicentric Inc. and content-management company Interwoven Inc. It lets 160 state agencies customize and manage their own content and provides self-service capabilities for citizens.

Massachusetts and other states are designing their portals to be "intentions based," further indication of government's growing customer-centricity. Offering users thematic links rather than connections to specific agencies makes the site more useful and easier to navigate. The Home and Health category on Mass.gov covers housing and family concerns. "A customer doesn't know or care if they deal with Medicare or the Office of Child Services," says Steve Crosby, chief of staff to Gov. Jane Swift. "All they know is they're getting access to all child services."

States recognize that portals are an ideal way to successfully transform their bureaucratic mentality into a customer-service focus. That explains why they're pouring so much energy into portal development. "We're focused on making ourselves more constituent-focused," New Mexico CIO Stafford says. "The way we're going to do that is through our portal."

State Portals Offer Range Of Services


Online procurement activities

Online information

Portal vendors


Lets state agencies order goods online

Education, business, health and safety, labor, transportation, history and cultural information

BroadVision, Deloitte Consulting


Request-for-proposal capabilities being evaluated

Tax filing, automobile registration, general laws, business, work, education, tourism, transportation

Epicentric, Interwoven


Pilot procurement project with Ariba, Accenture, and Epylon

Motor-vehicle appointments, lottery, tax returns and filing, professional licensing

IBM, Vignette


Dept. of Administration's Central Stores online Web site, ordering for state agencies

Government offices, governor's budget, tax forms, live TV coverage of legislative sessions, weather and road conditions

BroadVision, Deloitte Consulting, RoundArch

New Mexicowww.state.nm.us

Request-for-procurement capabilities to be released

E-services for taxes; medical examiners; nursing and pharmacy boards; charitable organizations; executive, legislative, and judicial branches of state government

IBM, Vignette

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights