E-Gov't Has Potential to Deliver on Web Promises

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - A stay-at-home mother of three, after surfing the Web in her spare time to compare the positions of two candidates running for governor, casts her vote by clicking her mouse, then goes back to tend to the kids.

Three hours later, with her oldest two off to school and the baby taking a nap, mom's back at the computer. She pays her water bill, authorizing her town's revenue collectors to deduct the funds from her bank account.

Then she clicks into a chat room sponsored by the local school board, which is seeking opinions on a proposed school redistricting plan that it will vote on days later.

Welcome to the world of e-government. From Capitol Hill to town hall, government is discovering that the Internet as an effective way of conducting public business.

It's happening, despite the fact that governments may not necessarily be drawing the best and brightest IT minds to build a virtual town hall or virtual state agency. According to Computerworld's 13th Annual Salary Survey last year, pay for government IT jobs ranks below that of many other industries.

But town officials in Blacksburg, Virginia, didn't worry about that. The town is about to launch a new Web site in which individual departments will control their content (coordinated through the town's public information office), says Marc Verneil, assistant town manager. An outside firm was hired to design the site, and the town's three-person IT staff can focus on other priorities, Verneil notes.

Blacksburg has big plans for its site. According to Verneil, Blacksburg wants to tie the site into the town's financial system to enable online payment for municipal services, allowing citizens to "pretty much take care of the business that they would take care of at the counter." And in the future, Verneil says, he envisions a chat room where citizens can register their views on issues. To be fair, Verneil notes, the town, home to a large university - Virginia Tech - is helped by the fact that 85 percent of the population is connected to the Internet, including every Virginia Tech student.

Verneil says he believes the town's Web site has helped give residents a better understanding of town issues. He cites the recent online publication of a comprehensive plan for the town's future.

There are other signs of success as well. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service, for instance, said the number of computerized income-tax filings not prepared by tax professionals more than doubled over last year, from 2.4 million to 4.9 million. And state governments are putting their services online for taxpayers and businesses. New Jersey, for example, recently developed a system that lets businesses apply and pay for permits needed for activities involving emissions.

Government at your fingertips could mean victory for all. Who wouldn't side with increased interest in a municipality's major issues and decreased costs?

Rick Saia is Computerworld's columns editor. Contact him at rick_saia@computerworld.com.

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