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State web site needs overhaul

Madison, Wis.—It's a state website for the new century, complete with RSS news feeds, podcasts and automatic e-mail notifications of everything important to the average person, such as school closings, unexpected pollutant releases and changes in the status of known sex offenders.

It's easy on the eye, with words cast in muted shades of gray, blue and tan. It contains links helping readers to renew a business license or get a free credit report, and gives up-to-the minute travel advisories: "11/02/2005 11:02 AM. Kent County, Route 13, between Porter Street & Gordon Street: intermittent lane closures for curb installation & hot mix operations until approx. Nov. 18 2005."

And, perhaps most welcome of all: Official statewide press releases are tucked discreetly behind an upper left-hand link and a small oval photograph of the governor.

Could this be Wisconsin's main state website? Ummm…sorry, no. It's Delaware's, and this year it won first place in a national competition sponsored by the Center for Digital Government of Folsom, California. CDG is a national research and advisory institute on government IT policies and best practices.

Additionally, in a separate CDG survey of 25 state web sites, Wisconsin came in last place.
Matt Miszewski, Wisconsin's CIO, admits that Wisconsin's site, or portal, as they are called, has some distance to cover before it wins any awards. "I'm highly critical of our current portal," he says. "We don't highlight services, we highlight information." And the search engine is especially problematic, Miszewski thinks. "It basically needs to be replaced."

While the state's main portal is less than stellar, individual state agencies are jumping ahead to create innovative solutions to their clients' needs. Four recently won awards from CDG, in fact. See previous WTN story.

Doing business electronically with governments through the use of portals has caught on in the last five or ten years, but there have been serious growing pains, and not just in Wisconsin. The idea is to build a site that is simple and seamless; a one-stop-shop that answers questions and delivers services quickly, and is readable by anyone with an elementary education. Portal construction has been likened to the building of a stained glass window, with an overall image comprised of a mosaic of smaller pieces.

The trouble is, in huge government bureaucracies the smaller pieces are devilishly hard to fit together. Lack of leadership, inertia, layers of permissions, even recalcitrance all can interfere with progress.

Then came a $3.2 billion budget deficit, which caused state leaders to cut back on programs. When Matt Miszewski left the private sector to enter state government in 2003, "what we saw was an environment grown up in surplus times," he said. "We saw a lot of individual agencies duplicating efforts. We have 2,500 servers among 52 different departments. Each had its own room, and staff to support the infrastructure."

"It's not to blame anyone, but we had to look at these things brand-new. Is there a better way to accomplish quality and minimize the cost impact?" he asked.

Around the country, different states tacked different ways when first experimenting with portal creation. Some contracted with private companies, and 19 still do, said Paul Taylor, chief strategy officer for the Center for Digital Government. The private companies reap a transaction fee for many services, which looks attractive to some states but not to others, he says. That's how Delaware started, in fact. In 2001, the state contracted with Accenture , a management consulting, outsourcing and technology services company, for $3.5 million to create the state's portal. In 2003, however, the state terminated the contract and decided to go it alone.

By going solo, Delaware saved over $600,000 annually in professional services and hosting fees, said Greg Hughes, director of Delaware's Government Information Center. The GIC is now responsible for the design, content and marketing of the state's portal, while another department, that of Technology and Information, handles technical issues and server hosting.

In Wisconsin, the short-lived Dept. of Electronic Government was abolished in 2003 and all authority was vested in the Dept. of Administration, where Miszewski now serves.

Wisconsin is now embarked on a project known as BadgerNet, a statewide, telecommunications network that will provide high-capacity data capability and will enable the convergence of data and video on the same network, with voice services for state government possibly added in the future. It will serve state and municipal government, library, K-12, university and technical college applications and network needs.

At the Digital Government Summit Nov. 29th in Madison, Miszewski had hoped to make an announcement regarding an upcoming timeframe and costs for the new portal's next stages, but that's been delayed, he said. He's now shooting for February, he said.

In the final analysis, what matters to the average person is not the architecture inside the portal, but what it delivers. And, at the moment, in contrast to Delaware, most of the site's valuable real estate is taken up by press releases from Miszewski's boss, Gov. Jim Doyle.

Miszewski is aware of that, but adds that even the governor may have to accommodate some changes in the name of establishing a more user-friendly portal.

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