A portal into e-city success stories

The IT industry and public sector think citizens are clamouring for the delivery local services online, but that’s not necessarily so, local government experts told the Municipal Information Systems Association’s (MISA) 2004 Forum this week.

“”I was at Lac Carling Congress recently and

it is so obsessed with online government, as if that were the only channel,”” said Louis Shallal says the director of IT services for York Region, who was speaking on a panel about strategies for serving the e-citizen. “”If you were to look at it from the perspective of the client, what does the client really want?””

According to Shallal, in one recent municipal survey, citizens indicated what they want most are snow-free streets and properly synched traffic lights so they can drive across town quickly. That’s not exactly a rousing endorsement of spending millions of dollars on providing e-government services.

“”What they want are services, proper content done quickly and available, and knowledgeable people — and they want it to be cheap, not raising taxes as a result,”” said Shallal.

Municipalities shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking all services should now be delivered solely online, he added.

“”We in MISA shouldn’t be so obsessed. It’s a mistake to think like that.””

Shallal, who was sharing his experiences and insights into municipal e-government along with Pam Ross, manager of IT for the town of Milton, Ont., and City of Mississauga “”e-city evangelist”” Svend Tretop, said to be successful, municipalities have to involve their community groups in their online portal strategy. “”You’ve got to involve your citizens and you should go to them as often as possible,”” he said.

According to Mississauga’s Tretop, the key to real portal success – and not just the “”smoke and mirrors”” surrounding municipal portals — is appointing business leads from key city departments such as finance, communications and building and planning to the portal project team.

“”It’s important to take your best people out,”” said Tretop. “”It shouldn’t be just an afterthought. We took the head of customer service for our Parks and Recreation department. She has to live with the system, so it was very successful.””

Tretop also stressed the importance of developing a project charter, which he called “”the most under-appreciated document in the entire project.”” A charter, he explained, is the idea of the project written concisely. It spells out which resources will be allocated to the project. “”Once that document is approved it becomes the basis of planning,”” he said. “”Eventually what gets to the RFP stage started with the charter.””

Tretop also advised that municipalities take advantage of every opportunity they can find to raise awareness of the portal project.

“”Don’t underestimate the power of phrases like ‘e-city’ or ‘i-city,”” he advised. “”It’s important to have a cool name and logo and e-city mouse pads, pens, T-shirts and all that stuff. It underlines the importance of it.””

But while the panelists had much to say about the factors that contribute to the success of a portal project, they had plenty to say about the challenges that can bog it down.

Milton’s Ross, who until recently was the head of IT for the City of Guelph, said the amount of time it can take to get government funding from sources such as Connect Ontario can dampen the enthusiasm of partners in the project, particularly when those partners are other members of a regional government. Worse, by the time funding comes through, partners have often forgotten what they committed to in the first place or may no longer be in office.

“”The lesson learned here is whether you’re in a funding agreement situation with the government or doing it alone, once you’ve got the partners fired up strike while the iron is hot,”” said Ross.

Tretop said in Mississauga’s case, one the biggest challenges in developing the city’s recently launched portal was managing a distributed team of city staff, vendors and subcontractors.

Not initially a fan of conference calling, Tretop says he came around.

“”By the end I was on board with that,”” he said. “”We had a conference call every morning at 9. It’s a pain, it gets ugly and it was boring.””

But for York Region’s Shallal, building a business case remains one of the top challenges municipal IT departments face in developing e-services.

Despite the fact that e-services can potentially reduce the number of staff required to provide over the counter services, he said, “”the fact is, you never let go of any staff. It never happens.””

The best argument that can be made, he said, is that “”we’re arresting the growth in demand for additional staff.””

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