B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N


of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 31, No. 3    February/March 2005

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E-Government II

Lessons Learned in Michigan : Best Practices for Local E-Government

by Carrie Hammerman

Carrie Hammerman is a policy analyst with cyber-state.org. In this capacity, she conducts research and analysis on the role of information technology within health care, education, economic development and e-government in the state of Michigan . She can be reached at (734) 302-4734 or chammerman@cyber-state.org.

Cyber-state.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan information and communication technology research and advocacy organization, has been working with governments and communities in Michigan , acting as a catalyst for exciting initiatives aimed at building digital inclusion for all its citizens. The organization is in its fourth year of conducting local government website assessments and reporting on key findings about e-government initiatives in Michigan . In this time period, there has been a dramatic growth in the number of local communities developing official websites and embracing information communication technology to meet the needs of their citizens. Cyber-state.org continues to provide an independent, professional analysis of Michigan ’s local government websites to recognize innovative and effective practices that help citizens find information and interact with their local officials, as well as to encourage all of the state’s local governments to get on line. The trends we have uncovered over the past several years may shed light on best practices and innovations for local governments across the country.

In its most recent assessment, conducted between January and May 2004, cyber-state found that nearly 30% of Michigan ’s local governments use the Internet to connect with their citizens and businesses. This is a dramatic growth over the past few years. In the first assessment, conducted in 1999/2000, only 5% of all Michigan ’s local governments had official websites. Not only have more communities identified the need for having a Web presence, but also local governments are increasingly becoming more sophisticated in their use of technology in the development of their websites.

In this year’s analysis of local government websites in Michigan , cyber-state.org noted several interesting trends in the development and design of websites.

Intergovernmental Cooperation

In an online survey of Michigan residents conducted in April 2004 residents indicated a clear preference for government services delivered via a portal. Over two-thirds of respondents said they would make greater use of government services on line if they could access the information through a single website linking local, state and federal information. This preference bodes well for communities working together to provide online services. Indeed, there has been an increase in intergovernmental cooperation with communities within a region sharing resources and leveraging their capacity to meet the online needs of citizens.

As an example, Washtenaw County , located in Southeastern Michigan , has offered to develop and host websites for the local municipalities within the county. For those who accept this offer, they also receive unlimited email, tech support and professional development. The municipalities are able to take advantage of the county’s content management system and utilize the infrastructure the county has spent years developing. Similarly, nearby Oakland County offers every local jurisdiction in its borders free high-speed Internet access, email hosting services, access to GIS software and training, and online e-commerce capabilities. They have created a system called “Access Oakland” to facilitate online transactions for citizens who want to pay taxes, look up assessment data, buy maps, order birth, death and marriage certificates, and pay traffic tickets. Local communities provide their local records to the county to put into this system, and the county, in turn, hosts the services for free for the local communities. To help mitigate the costs associated with providing the information, Oakland County shares a portion of the revenues from fees charged to citizens for enhanced access to public records with the local communities.

In another example of intergovernmental cooperation, several counties throughout the state (Leelanau, Van Buren, Charlevoix and Hillsdale) and the communities within them are taking advantage of the model developed by the Land Information Access Association (LIAA), based in Traverse City , Michigan . LIAA has developed a Community Center software program, which they refer to as a “content management system and Web-based digital mapping application designed to support community-building processes.” Through this tool, all of the local jurisdictions within a county that adopts it are able to provide information on line about their community, including posting meeting minutes, newsletters, ordinances, reports and other information. Thus, communities that might otherwise not have a Web presence have moved on line through this collaborative tool.

External Providers

Communities turning to LIAA as an external vendor to develop and host their websites is indicative of another trend – local governments are increasingly outsourcing work on their websites to external companies and organizations with more specialized expertise. Some have sought private companies to develop and maintain their entire website, while others have sought help on particular services. As an example, a number of local governments have been introducing e-commerce capabilities through their websites to allow residents to pay utility bills, parks and recreation fees, parking citations and taxes. To enable citizens to make these payments on line, local governments would need to implement secure payment websites to protect residents’ personal name and address information as well as their credit card data. Creating and maintaining this functionality can be a burden on communities, so numerous municipalities have sought the services of companies like the Official Payments Corporation. As of May 2004 over 55 Michigan municipalities (counties, townships, cities and villages) had turned to this private vendor to process payments securely on line.

Communities have also sought external vendors to help with their information dissemination efforts. For instance, over 120 Michigan communities have turned to the Municipal Code Corporation to host and maintain their ordinances, meeting minutes and zoning regulations on line. Making this information available on line ensures that everyone knows where to find the most current information and allows for full-text searching.

Interactive and Transactional Websites

A third trend is the growth in communities moving beyond websites that simply provide static information toward interactive and transactional websites. Local governments taking these steps understand that the Internet provides new ways to structure the relationship between citizens and government. They are realizing the opportunities to better meet the needs of citizens in the online environment by taking advantage of the new means for interaction with the public. As highlighted above, numerous communities are allowing residents to make payments through their websites as an alternative to making payments in person or by mail. This service has the advantage of standardizing the payment process and allowing payments to be received more quickly than if they were submitted through the mail. Citizens are also able to make the payments on their own time, instead of waiting in line down at City Hall during business hours. As an example of an innovative, interactive feature, Michigan ’s second largest city, Grand Rapids , has implemented a Geographic Information System (GIS)-based Public Inquiry system. Using this online tool, residents can contact the city regarding potholes, dead animals in the street, vacant buildings and trash that hasn’t been picked up, or they can register complaints/compliments about the Grand Rapids Police Department. Any type of inquiry can quickly and easily be made with this tool and then visitors can revisit the website to obtain information on the status of their inquiries.

Addressing of Privacy Concerns

While addressing citizens’ privacy concerns may not be as widespread as the other three trends, it is interesting to note the heightened awareness by local governments and the efforts to address these worries.

Curiously, Michigan residents continue to state a strong preference for not putting public records on line; in the most recent cyber-state.org survey, over 80% of the Michigan public said that they do not want government to keep public records on the Internet. This preference may be perplexing to local governments that recognize the large number of residents visiting their websites to find information. In an attempt to understand the desires of citizens in this area, Internet respondents were asked if there ought to be limits for those accessing one type of public records – those pertaining to property taxes. Unfortunately, respondents provided no clear direction. The response was split – nearly as many people wanted built-in limits on accessing property tax records as wanted none. Nonetheless, some communities in Michigan are pondering this issue and trying different approaches. As an example, Midland County allows the public five free searches of property tax information. If website visitors desire more, they must pay a fee that is determined by the number of property searches they want to do in a year. This restriction limits data mining efforts, while still making the public information available.

Another community, the city of Sterling Heights , offers a privacy policy that is written in layman’s language and provides detailed explanations so visitors to the site can understand how their information is collected and used. For instance, they write, “When you visit our site simply to browse, read or download information we will not collect any individual identifying or personal information. Nor will we use ‘cookies’ without your express permission or any other means (such as Adware or Spyware) to track your visit in any way. Based upon the data we do collect during such ‘information-gathering’ visits, the city cannot ascertain any personal information regarding an individual user (such as name, street address or telephone number).” The city has made clear efforts to address citizens’ concerns and offers a straightforward explanation of how personal information is or is not used and collected. This reassurance helps to alleviate citizens’ privacy concerns.

Conclusion

Over the course of the last four years of cyber-state.org’s Local Government and Community Initiative, we have seen climatic advancements in municipalities’ Web presence and practices. Local governments utilizing e-government solutions understand how vital it is to use technology to disseminate information and provide service to the public. Website initiatives continue to break down the barriers that constrict citizens from interacting with their local governments, enabling citizens to conduct transactions, perform inquires and increasing opportunities for civic participation.

Additional information regarding cyber-state’s assessments of local government websites can be reviewed at the Local Government & Community Initiative section of cyber-state.org’s website (http://www.cyber-state.org/1_0/1_4_1.html).


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