By James Carberry and Christopher Steins (November/December, 2000)
As governments move online, real estate companies and other businesses could benefit from more efficient, lower-cost services.
The Internet has given birth to thousands of business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) sites that now are being joined by a growing number of what might be termed government-to-business, or G2B, sites. Cities, counties, states, and the federal government are creating websites or expanding existing sites to provide an ever-increasing flow of online information to companies and businesses, as well as other users. Some of these sites have interactive features that enable viewers to conduct simple business transactions with governments, such as applying for permits, searching real estate parcel records, or paying property taxes, utility bills, or parking tickets.
Government websites are far from being models of consistency-the level of detail varies considerably from one site to the next and within different sections of the same site. If governments succeed in addressing issues ranging from recruiting technology professionals to overcoming bureaucratic inertia to protecting citizen privacy, today's rudimentary government sites could evolve into "virtual governments," in which many government services and transactions would be Internet enabled. The potential benefit to real estate professionals would be dramatic.
"In leveraging the Internet economy, government is transforming citizen and business relationships by providing universal, anytime/ anywhere access to local, state, and government information and services," according to "Benchmarking the e-Government Revolution," a recent survey of citizens and businesses (www.egovernmentreport.com) commissioned by the National Information Consortium (NIC), an e-government solutions provider (www.nicusa.com). Among its findings, the survey reports that 39 percent of business users would like one-stop shopping for all licenses and permits, and 36 percent of citizen users would like one-stop shopping for all government services regardless of jurisdiction. Rather than paying taxes for e-government initiatives, many businesses and citizens would prefer to pay fees for online services.
In another report, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research, Inc., said that "despite funding struggles and bureaucratic inertia, e-government will change the way authorities deal with citizens and businesses. By 2006, federal, state and local governments will collect 15 percent of fees and taxes online or a total of $602 billion." The firm also reported that "expectations for online government will rise quickly as citizens incorporate private sector e-commerce into their daily lives between 2002 and 2005."
Because businesses and the public most often deal with government at the local level, city Web sites are drawing the most attention from users On the city of Boston's site (www.ci.boston.ma.us), users can download and print out applications for property-tax abatements and learn about city-owned tax-foreclosed or surplus properties for sale. The city of Chicago's site (www.cityofchicago.org) provides permit applications for new construction, major repairs, renovations, and demolition; those forms can be downloaded, printed, completed, and filed with the city. In Virginia (www.vipnet.org), citizens use the department of motor vehicles' site to renew driver's licenses and vehicle registrations, to order personalized license plates, to request driver or vehicle transcripts, and more. The city of Vallejo, California, has created a mapping system to list properties available in the city. California's "CalGOLD" service (www.calgold.cagov) provides one-stop shopping for companies that want to know what permits are required to do business in the state and where to obtain them.
How can you tell an "official" city website? The official website address of a city website is typically in the form www.ci.cityname.ca.us, where "ci" stands for "city"; the city name is abbreviated or hyphenated, such as "san-diego"; "ca," the abbreviated state name, stands for California; and "us" stands for the country. These addresses are awarded only to cities; so the user has some certainty that the website with this form of address is the official city site.
Increasingly, however, cities are opting for friendlier and easier-to-remember addresses, such as www.anaheim.net. In some cases, two or three different websites will claim to be the official website for a city. In this case, be sure to look for the official city seal, obvious contact information, and a professional look and feel to the site. The best way to check that the site is official is to call the city to ask for the website address.
Private Web Portals. Cities also are providing services through the Web portals of private companies such as ezgov.com (www.ezgov.com) and govWorks (www.govworks.com), which partner with governments across the country to provide e-government services. Users can visit ezgov.com to pay property taxes, utility bills, and parking tickets in certain cities and counties across the United States and to obtain information about state and local governments.
Online Permits. Many city sites are limited to providing a one-way flow of information from the city to users. Slowly but surely, however, cities are adding interactive features that enable users to transact business with public agencies. On Civic Net (www.civicnet.net), a site of the city of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, users can apply for and receive electrical, heating and cooling, plumbing, and other types of permits. The city of Sunnyvale, California, in Silicon Valley, has pioneered development of an e-permits system (www.e-permits.net/sunnyvale) that enables users to complete permits online, beginning with simple building permits. On a larger scale, a number of cities in Silicon Valley are collaborating with the private sector in developing a "smart permits" system that will enable online permitting. In a pilot project, the cities and their partners also are testing the use of e-signatures.
The states and federal government also are continuing to move toward Web-enabled information and services. In June 2000, President Clinton announced a project "to give our citizens a single, customer-focused website where they can find every online resource offered by the federal government." The new website, firstgov.com (http://firstgov.com), will be created in 90 days or less, at no cost to the government, by a team that specializes in Internet search technologies. "The federal government this year will award about $300 billion in grants and buy $200 billion in goods and services. Over the coming year, we will make it possible for people to go online and compete for these grants and contracts through a simplified electronic process," Clinton said. The goal is not only to save time and money but also to open the bidding process to community groups, small businesses, and citizens who may never before have participated.
The growth of government websites promises a more efficient and less costly process by which companies and businesses can do business with government. Even in the Internet age, real estate companies, as well as other businesses, still spend thousands of hours a year in telephone calls or visits to the offices of city or county governments to obtain copies of ordinances, zoning regulations, building codes, or other documents; to apply for permits; to obtain property tax records; and to conduct many other transactions. The process is often slow and inefficient and costs money in staff time and paperwork. The private sector will benefit as the business of government moves increasingly to the Web, and real estate companies have the most to gain. Perhaps more than other industries and businesses, real estate has a continuing, close relationship with government. This relationship exists not only in routine transactions but also in the increasing number of public and private partnerships between government agencies and real estate companies in the development and ownership of large projects, such as convention centers, hotel and retail complexes, adaptive use of older buildings and historic properties, and conversion of public buildings to private ownership. If city websites can be used to help facilitate such projects, real estate companies could benefit from faster project completion times, more efficient project management, and lower costs.
For their part, cities have powerful incentives to move information and services online. First, they can manage information more efficiently, routinely adding ordinances, regulations, rules, reports, press releases, and proclamations to their sites, updating existing information, and rapidly communicating with citizens. Second, cities that leverage the power of the Internet to provide better service may gain a competitive edge in attracting corporations and businesses that contribute to the growth of local economies and provide new sources of tax revenue. Third, businesses are becoming more innovative in the use of the Internet as a communications and management tool, and cities are racing to keep up. Some cities are reaching out to the private sector for advice and assistance in developing and delivering online services or to partner on Web projects. Cities are expected to invest more to upgrade information technology (IT) systems and to provide information and services online. Gartner Group analysts project spending for e-government (including federal, state, and local) will grow from $1.5 billion in 2000 to more than $6.2 billion by 2005 in expenditures for e-business-related hardware, software, and internal and external service. But cities, always cautious about making expensive new investments in technology, will move slowly in upgrading information systems. Cities, counties, and states usually are required to award contracts-including those for IT systems-through a competitive bidding process that often can take months to complete.
And no matter how much they invest in IT hardware and software, governments will continue to face the challenge of recruiting and retaining IT workers in a highly competitive market where the private sector is offering much more in base salary and, frequently, stock options and other incentives. Many states are suffering from a shortage of IT personnel and are having difficulty filling vacancies. Governments might outsource some IT projects, but they still must educate contractors in how a city's information system functions and manage the project.
While much of the current focus of e-government is on basic front-end services like online payment of property taxes or parking tickets, the real potential for greater efficiencies and savings is in the back-end management of government itself. Following the example of large companies, governments could move their internal operations to the Web and build online connections both between the departments of a single government entity and among cities and states and the federal government. But such interaction would require a high degree of cooperation among agencies, some of them isolated bureaucracies with their own agendas and budgets and a disinclination to integrate their information systems into larger networks.
Governments also must address public concern about protecting the privacy of citizens. The NIC survey found that only one-third of e-commerce users "trust that the government will keep their records confidential." Governments themselves are concerned that private third-party providers of e-government services protect the confidentiality of government records and not control, store, or disseminate any information flowing between the citizenry and government. Service providers generally say that they do not control, resell, or data-manage this information flow.
Despite the trend toward e-government, businesses and citizens still will have reasons to visit city hall. Representatives of real estate companies may want to meet with officials to get more detailed information, for example, about a city's process for reviewing and approving proposed development projects.
City, county, state, and federal governments are in the early stage of developing G2B websites. Over time, cities will develop more comprehensive, sophisticated, and user-friendly sites that will be of increasing value to companies, businesses, and the public and that may transform government-to-business relationships. How fast individual cities progress will depend on a number of issues, such as budget constraints, the availability of technical staff, and commitment to offering more services online. Greater standardization of the content on city sites would be helpful to users, who would then have a better idea of what to expect on a site and where to find it. But city and other government sites already are beginning to reduce the paper chase and to save companies and businesses money.
© 2000 ULI-the Urban Land Institute, all rights reserved.