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March 6, 2001

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Mobile is Wired

by P. Forbus

In the last issue, we reported that Mobile is one of the cities that has made a real commitment to implementing e-government and has taken concrete steps to realize the promise of more efficient and more accountable city government. In this article we look at some specifics of that project.

Mobile's man at the forefront in the e-government project is Christopher Lee, the city's Executive Director of Administrative Services and its de facto Chief Information Officer. In addition to overseeing the implementation of e-government for the City of Mobile, Lee also serves on the Advisory Board of CXO Advisory Group LLC, which provides top public-sector executives with critical insights on e-government issues and Information Technology investment options. He also serves on the organizing committee for the conference on The Foundations of Electronic Government in America's Cities, a National Science Foundation initiative to "identify and prioritize research issues relating to development of successful urban digital government applications." Mr. Lee supplied the information for the following report on Mobile's e-government project.

The City of Mobile began an e-government initiative for 2000 with a goal of developing twelve transactions on the city's web site in the first year. A "transaction" refers to "any on-line activity or download of a form that saves [a person needing information or services from the city government] a trip to Government Plaza." After a year, they had achieved almost double that initial goal, with 22 forms, transactions, and other information available online in the "Timesaver" section of the web site. These are envisioned not as substitutes for traditional information services, but as another dimension of local government that makes information and help more accessible.

Following the initial "brochure ware" phase of simply posting information on-line on a user-friendly easily navigable site, the second phase of the city's project was to increase accessibility to services by providing frequently-used documents that could be easily downloaded. In this phase, the city conducted an inventory of every form used by every office and agency at Government Plaza, then simplified and standardized those forms, in some cases eliminating forms when it was discovered they were redundant or unnecessary. The next step was converting the most commonly requested forms to a format that could be easily downloaded by people using virtually any type of personal computer in their homes or offices.

The third phase was to create interactive maps, including maps showing the schedule for trash and garbage pick-up, for example. The Parks and Recreation section of the city's website also has maps showing the facilities available at every city park. The fourth phase is to create fully web-enabled services that will make a business process interactive and automated. "We are starting this with the payment of parking tickets and application for a business license," Lee says, "but we have a long way to go, and it is the most difficult phase."

Another way to measure the progress of the e-government initiative is by the number of people actually using the alternative means of access. According to statistics compiled by the city's webmaster, John Strope of Dogwood Productions, the number of visitors to the city's web site from January 1 through October 29, 2000 was precisely 8,173,188. This is up from about six million for the entire year 1999. More important than the number of visitors is the 8,913 requests for downloads of information and on-line transactions in the ten-month period. Almost a fourth of those were requests for the Mayor's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2001, which was submitted to the City Council in August. The number of visits and requests continues to increase monthly, as more people find out about the city's web site and more types of transactions are offered. The city is encouraging all departments of city government to make available the forms and other information that they use most often in their dealing with the public for inclusion on the site.

As the previous article explained, one of the concerns that many people express about using internet-based technology to connect government and citizens is the "digital divide" issue - the concern that e-government may widen the gap between citizens with access to the technology and those who do not. The City of Mobile recognized this concern from the beginning of its project, and has put a high priority on addressing it. The city works with the Mobile County Public Library, for example, by providing funding that has assisted in their program of providing computer workstations with internet access in all library branches. The city also funds the Weed and Seed program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has a computer-learning center in Trinity Gardens. The city also provides funding each year to the Boys and Girls Clubs, which also have computer workstations in some of their locations. Mr. Lee states that "this is a start, but we need to look for more innovative ways to provide access for more people. I would like to see all of our community centers connected to a wide-area network, which would allow us to conduct distance learning. This would leverage our investments to date to a much greater degree."

Considering the e-government initiative as an investment suggests that there should be a return on the investment. Unlike business investments that yield an easily measurable return in cash flows, however, the Return on Investment (ROI) in the public sector is notoriously hard to quantify. One measure is the time saved for citizens. In this view the ROI can be computed as (average hourly wage) x (number of on-line transactions) x 1 hour + (cost of parking for one hour downtown x number of transactions). Using an average hourly wage of $8.65 and an average parking cost of $5.00, the estimated ROI from 8,913 transactions if $121,662 in saved time for Mobile residents. This does not consider the time saved for city and county staff, which is one of the important forms of return from the investment in e-government, but one that is even more difficult to estimate. "The real return on investment," Lee says, "will come when business processes such as permitting are fully on-line functions."

Looking to the future, Lee says the City of Mobile's e-government initiative must address three primary issues. The first is ensuring that each step in the project is accomplished in a way that protects the security and privacy of users. Opinion surveys have consistently shown that these are paramount concerns to the public, and it is essential that nothing be done that will jeopardize the public's trust in government. The second challenge is to ensure that the city delivers those types of transaction and information that the public actually needs and wants, and not those that government officials think are needed. This will require customer surveys to monitor user satisfaction with the services offered. The third challenge is simply to continue to evolve and adapt to the needs of the public. "Our web site is a dynamic tool that adds another dimension to how we serve the public," Lee says. "We have to strive for greater access, ease of use and seamless linkage to other governmental bodies that deliver services to the public. This will never be a status quo initiative, but one that changes and adapts to the needs of the public it serves."


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