B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N


of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 31, No. 2    December/January 2005

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Special Section: E-Government

The Next Wave of E-Government: The Challenges of Data Architecture 
by Charles H. Kaylor

Charles H. Kaylor is with Public Sphere Information Group, P.O. Box 600434 , Newtonville , MA 02460 ; he can be reached by email at ckaylor@psigroup.biz

There can be no doubt about it: local e-government efforts are starting to mature. Given the dramatic increase in the flexibility and affordability of Web-based technologies, more and more municipal and county governments across the nation are realizing the benefits of Web-enabled applications. Data outlined below suggest that, in large part, the newest trends in e-government evolution will squarely target the ability of local governments to think flexibly and creatively about data integration. Taking advantage of these opportunities will also require increased organizational and management capacity. This paper describes the evolution of e-government across the nation’s largest cities, assesses trends in service delivery and considers some of the implications of these changes for all local governments.

In recent years, advances in technology, particularly the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, have led to a dramatic change in how local governments construe their service delivery obligations. As the data described below demonstrate, a sea change is occurring as these applications evolve. What separates the leading edge from the rest is increasingly defined by sophisticated back-end integration of data – geographic information systems (GIS), constituency relationship management (CRM), document management and content management. New and proliferating information and communications technologies seem to promise broader information dissemination and new modes of service delivery. All local governments face significant challenges in the next stages of e-government, but smaller governments, in particular, are increasingly left behind by these developments. A substantial challenge remains in finding feasible and sustainable approaches to providing information and services to the public in an era of data integration.

Benchmarking Change: The Municipality e-Government Assessment Project (MeGAP)

When local governments first began to use the Web for information and service delivery, they tended to make ad hoc decisions. Individual bureaus would often develop their websites without coordinating across the organization. The result was that early municipal website development tended to be a cobble of ponderously organized, difficult to find information with very little interactivity or consideration for their audience.

The Municipality e-Government Assessment Project (MeGAP) had its origin in 2000 as an effort to provide a comprehensive compendium and benchmark of municipal experiments in the provision of Web-based services. The MeGAP assessment of local governments and the data it generates are designed, collected and maintained by the Public Sphere Information Group, Newtonville, MA (www.psigroup.biz/megap). The strategy for the development of this methodology was to focus on information that would be of use to e-government implementers, creating an overview of what other local governments had done to inform their own decision-making. This approach is deliberately in tension with a number of rubrics for evaluating services that were available at the time of its development.

When this study was initially devised, there were already several efforts at evaluating (and developing metrics for evaluating) the success of websites provided by local (Kanfer & Kolar, Johnson & Misic, Stowers), state and federal (West, Eschenfelder) governments. These studies had a common approach – create an evaluative rubric for already existing efforts with an eye toward improving implemented services and offering best practices advice for prospective services. What none of them provides, however, is concrete advice on specific strategies and applications (that is, which cities had provided which types of Web-based services and which services were most common). As a result there were no reliable assessments of the state of municipal e-government.

Contemporaneously with the evolution of the MeGAP as a benchmark of e-government, several organizations and researchers began publishing rankings of websites. Most notably, Darrell West’s “Urban E-Government, 2004” provides one of the more comprehensive assessments of the state of municipal government efforts, providing “a detailed analysis of 1,873 city government sites in the 70 largest metropolitan areas” in the United States. Also private organizations such as the Center for Digital Government announces its “Best of the Web” rankings for municipal, county and state governments, based on its annual survey. Unlike all of these studies, however, in addition to devising a rating system based on the composite eScore, the MeGAP also provides a fine-grained analysis of particular functions and services that cities have characteristically provided for generations combined with those functions that are the hallmark of the information age. The relatively straightforward method for gathering these data begins with an observational study of official municipal websites. Each website is assessed across a wide range of performance dimensions that fall into four categories:

§         information dissemination (online presence)

§         registration, permits & GIS (interactive functions)

§         eCommerce (transactional functions)

§         eDemocracy (tranformative functions)

The MeGAP uses a four-point system to assess the degree of implementation of the 75 performance dimensions under these general categories. Points are awarded for each dimension based on the degree of interactivity of that Web-enabled feature as follows: one point if information on a given subject exists; two points if contact information exists for the relevant responsible party; three points if documents and forms exist in a downloadable format; and four points if the transaction of information and data can take place completely online. The study focuses, then, on observing the degree of interactivity across a range of performance dimensions. The approach only assesses those services that are accessible to an outsider visiting a municipal government’s official website, measuring the existence of and level of sophistication of services and providing a summary “eScore.”

Findings

The overall finding of this assessment of the largest U.S. cities is that a tremendous amount of progress has been made. For example, from the first MeGAP observations (Wave I) in 2000-2001 to the latest effort (Wave III) in 2004, the increase in the availability, interactivity and quality of Web-based municipal services is stunning. As Figure 1 shows, among cities over 500,000, eScores improved impressively over time. In part, this improvement has to do with several changes in the assessment instrument itself, primarily the inclusion of several new performance dimensions that pertain to particular information and services, such as information on education, community services, housing, vital records and public health. That caveat aside, controlling for new dimensions, eScores improved among all cities at each wave of observation.

When the first data using what evolved into the MeGAP methodology were gathered in 2000, interactive functions and features were far less common. In fact, in the first wave of observations, only 36 of the 141 U.S. cities with populations between 100,000 and 200,000 allowed any interactive access to city hall beyond offering a generic email address or other minimal contact. Among all cities with official websites, a distinct minority offered interactive access to services and functions (Kaylor, Deshazo & Van Eck). Only about one third of U.S. cities over 100,000 offered downloadable documents. The standard in 2000 was basic informational services.  

A more reliable measure of the improvements at municipal websites in general involves the provision of interactive services. The overall eScores suggest that local governments are broadening the range of services and functions to which they provide access. Without exception, all cities with populations over 100,000 provide access to more and more information. More importantly, however, municipalities are improving the ease of use of these features by offering an increasing number of interactive services online (see Figure 2). Interestingly, the most common interactive feature at municipal sites is the online action request. The term of art for these features, generally, is customer relationship management (CRM) tools, which borrows from the private sector – although often the acronym is amended in the public sector context to “constituent” or “citizen.” In the most recent wave of observations, over three quarters of the governments of cities with populations over 300,000 allow online submission of service requests or complaints – anything from potholes or burned-out streetlights to code and nuisance violations.

Other interactive features have also proliferated since the 2001 wave of observations. The top 10 leaders in eScores in Wave I had from eight to 10 functions that could take place entirely online. Today, the top 10 cities allow from 16 to 20. The spreading ease of use reaches across a panoply of city functions – to include building and licensing, utilities payments, assessments, procurement, planning and GIS. Over the period of the three waves of assessment, an increasing number of large local governments provide these interactive and transactive features on line. Beyond those displayed in Figure 2, all municipal governments of large U.S. cities have increased their interactivity remarkably in the last several years.  

More telling is the trajectory that separates cities with higher eScores from the rest. At the first wave of observations in 2001, even among cities over 100,000, relatively few offered more than basic information dissemination. Only a small minority (29%) provided online interactive GIS; even fewer (24%) offered online constituency relationship management (CRM); fewer still offered online payments (6%). Today these features are the mainstays of Web-based services among larger municipalities with 77% of the largest cities in the country providing some sort of interactive access to action request and complaint systems, although fewer have implemented fully functional CRM systems. Over 60% have data-rich, highly interactive GIS features. Over half provide the means for online payments of fines or fees. The trend is clear: the current state of the art in electronic government is toward features and functions that demand complex and comprehensive data integration. Cities that characterize the leading edge of innovation have, through a combination of technological implementation and organizational change, developed the capacity to synthesize and deliver staggering amounts of data to the public.

While the leading edge demonstrates an enormous opportunity to provide better information and services to the publics they serve, one concomitant trend must be noted. A huge gap exists between these largest communities and smaller and more rural areas. Regional studies using the MeGAP methodology show that, even in metropolitan areas, a large divide exists between “haves” and “have-nots.” For example, a 2001 study of metropolitan St. Louis showed that only 36% of the region’s local governments had official websites at all. This translates into roughly 30% of the population living in municipalities that offer no online services. Similarly, a study of the entire states of Massachusetts (2002) and Kentucky (2003) using the MeGAP methodology show that significant portions of the populations are nowhere near the leading edge described in this article; indeed, their communities lack official Web presence altogether.

Challenges of the Next Wave of E-Government

Utopians at the advent of the availability of Web-based services hoped for a transformation in the ways that citizens engage their governments. Many continue to hold out hope for technology-enabled democratic decision-making. This study of large U.S. cities suggests that, to date, such hope is in vain. No doubt there are many reasons that new modes of engaging citizens are not being developed at city websites.

Data-rich features characterize the leading edge.  Given that investment decisions in information technology are made in an environment of fierce competition for increasingly scarce resources, implementation of all Web-based services amounts to triage. Increasingly, large U.S. cities are turning toward business modeling to determine which services and features to invest in. This change in emphasis means that technologies that can be shown to increase efficiency or decrease costs are given priority. Without question, the technologies that are proving themselves using such metrics are those that integrate existing data and thereby locate ways of redeeming existing expenditures. Data gathered pursuant to some previously stove-piped function within city governments is now increasingly linked with other data, providing new services and enriched information to constituents.

A fine example of this trend is in the proliferating use of GIS across city departments. In previous years, GIS tended to be subsumed within a particular department’s Web page – more often than not planning or public works. Increasingly, however, local governments are incorporating GIS functionality broadly. For example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg links GIS to the voter registration database, allowing site visitors to locate polling places, wards and other election information linked to geography. Los Angeles is among several cities that have integrated GIS with their locations-based services. From a single site, constituents can find out about the location of schools, fire departments, street maintenance operations and police stations, based on their locations. San Diego is one of several cities that have linked GIS functionality with CRM, meaning that a site visitor can make an action request by specifying the location of, say, a pothole on a street map.

Specific applications point to the need for continued technological and managerial change. To be sure, the increase in easily accessible information provided by local governments has the demonstrably positive benefits of improving constituent satisfaction, improving performance and empowering citizens. Indeed, the better cities provide such information, the less city staff is burdened by having to answer telephones, respond to email and interface with the public visiting city hall. The challenge, of course, transcends technology. While it is clear that the technological capacities of leading edge cities far outpace those of their smaller peers, the real change has been in the culture of city government, a change that has yet to settle into smaller jurisdictions. The current generation of e-government evolution requires flexible technology management as never before. Indeed, the latest round of applications requires new approaches to stimulate creative thinking regarding existing stores of data, approaches that will locate valuable and useful data and link it functionally across departments. As Ellen Perlman recently wrote in Governing, “Rather than trying to force all data into one big compatible base, the idea is to tap into existing databases for the bits and pieces of information – and integrate them for a specific use.” This goal is one that requires the continued integration of best practices in IT management into local governments. Naturally, localities with large IT staffs and professionally trained management will continue to lead.

The digital divide between advanced local governments and the rest continues to grow apace.

Finally, the MeGAP shows clearly that smaller, more rural communities are being left farther and farther behind. On one hand, this is a distressing trend. Analyzing the geography of local government in Michigan, for example, we see the concrete effects (Figure 3). Michigan is hardly alone in having large swaths of smaller, rural jurisdictions that completely lack official Web presences. The challenges of implementing cutting-edge applications for these communities seem a distant and unlikely concern. That said, increasingly, local government implementation of technology is associated with economic development and competitiveness.

The challenges confronting these smaller jurisdictions are manifold. There are nonetheless, perhaps, advantages to lagging. Several best practices are emerging that smaller jurisdictions can benefit from. For example, many city governments put enormous resources into Web-enabling their services and functions at the onset of the e-government revolution only to find that they need to reinvest in content management systems in order to keep information up-to-date. Smaller governments just now turning to Web-enabled applications are implementing content management systems at the outset. More crucially, perhaps in the long run there are advantages to lagging today. The emerging best practices of data integration and organizational change can certainly inform what these smaller communities do next. The task is to develop models for implementation that are sound, sustainable and appropriate.  

Caption

Figure 3: Map Showing Michigan Local Governments with Official Websites (dark). (Data from cyber-state.org)

References

Center for Digital Government. 2001 digital cities survey. Retrieved October 18, 2004, from www.centerdigitalgov.com/center/01digitalcities.phtml.

Center for Digital Government. 2003 digital cities survey. Retrieved October 18, 2004, from www.centerdigitalgov.com/center/03digitalcities.phtml.

Eschenfelder, K. et al. (1997). Assessing U.S. federal websites. Government Information Quarterly, 14 (2), 173-189.

Johnson, K. L., & Misic, M. M. Benchmarking: A tool for Web site evaluation and improvement. Electronic Networking Applications and Policy, 9, 383–392.

Kanfer, A., & Kolar, C. (1995). What are communities doing on-line? (Retrieved October 18, 2004, from www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/People/alaina/com_online)

Kaylor, C. H., Deshazo, R., & Van Eck, D. (2001). Gauging e-government: A report on implementing services among American cities. Government Information Quarterly, 18, 293-307.

Perlman, E. (2004 September). Dealing in data: Forget about building a big all-purpose database. There are other ways to integrate state and local information. Governing. (Retrieved October 18, 2004 from www.governing.com/articles/9egdata.htm).

Stowers, G. N. L. (1999). Becoming cyberactive: State and local governments on the World Wide Web.” Government Information Quarterly, 16, 111-127.

West, D. (2004). Urban E-government, 2004. Providence: Center for Public Policy, Brown University. (Retrieved October 18, 2004 from www.insidepolitics.org/egovt04city.html.)

West, D. M. (2000). Assessing e-government: The Internet, democracy, and service delivery by state and federal governments. (Retrieved October 18, 2004, from www.insidepolitics.org/egovtreport00.html.)

Elements of this analysis were presented by the author in a paper entitled “The State of eGovernment in the US: Benchmarking the Progress of Localities” at the “E-governance: Creating On-line Citizen Participation Tools” conference at Ohio State University, March 4-6, 2004.


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