Archive for Sunday, July 11, 2004

E-government ready to take next step

July 11, 2004


Jeff Spink drives 150 miles a day to run down real estate titles, deeds, tax liens, drainage easements, tax foreclosures, divorce filings and any other government documents that might affect a property's ownership.

The prospect of downloading them all by computer in a matter of seconds -- instead of traversing as many as six counties daily -- is attractive. But the businessman isn't about to trade in the value of face-to-face transactions and old-fashioned paper documents.

"I've seen where computers aren't always 100 percent right," said Spink, owner of J.S. Abstracting, who fears data being entered incorrectly or -- perhaps worse -- not at all. "I still have to come down and look at the hard records. Over time, it could all be on computer, but I have to go back 25 years."

Despite a meteoric rise in the use of e-government by the public, many people like Spink still prefer to rely on government's traditional method of delivering services in person, by phone or through the mail.

But the findings of a new survey are giving governments -- including those in Douglas County -- reason to boost their e-government offerings, whether it's putting more information online or enabling people to make payments via computer.

"We've got the basic stuff done," said Jim Lawson, the county's director of information technology. "We have good hardware. We have a good network. Now we're ready to move to the next level."

Connecting online

Nationwide, 97 million Americans, or 77 percent of Internet users, went online to connect with government last year, according to a survey conducted for the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

A year earlier, 66 million Americans, or 56 percent of Internet users, took advantage of e-government, whether that meant visiting a government Web site or e-mailing government officials. That was up from 40 million people, or 47 percent of Internet users, in 2000, the survey's first year.

Jim Lawson, information technology director for Douglas County, is
in charge of bringing county government services into the digital

Jim Lawson, information technology director for Douglas County, is in charge of bringing county government services into the digital age.

The increase in e-government users is happening more quickly than expected, said John B. Horrigan, author of the Pew report. He credited more people having high-speed broadband connections at home that make it easier to go online.

Following that trend, the demand for e-government services continues to surge in Lawrence, said City Manager Mike Wildgen. City Hall already allows people to enroll in recreational programs online, pay utility bills online and download detailed maps suitable for penciling out development plans (

'It's never enough'

And there's more to come.

"We're the center of e-government, (but) I don't know that it's ever enough," Wildgen said. "New ideas come up almost every week for the use of the Internet, and access to government reports."

At the county courthouse, efforts to boost e-government offerings include plans to spend $60,000 next year to hire a GIS coordinator. The employee will be charged with collating the reams of digital data already amassed by county departments, then making it accessible to those demanding it -- from department heads to the general public.

Projects in the works include posting personal-property assessment forms online, allowing people to schedule building inspections through the Web, and giving people a chance to sign up for informational updates with the click of a mouse.

'Unlimited opportunities'

"It would be a (free) subscriber service," Lawson said. "You could sign up for a topic you're interested in, and whenever something about that shows up on a commission agenda, you get notified by e-mail. ...

"There are unlimited opportunities to provide information."

The county's Web site ( attracts 11,000 unique visitors a month, up from fewer than 2,000 as recently as three years ago. It allows visitors to interactively scan maps, pay property taxes, look up voting sites and pinpoint property values.

Such services are not pervasive. In Baldwin, city officials struggle simply to keep their fledgling Web site ( up and running.

The city doesn't have employees dedicated to the task, but students at Baker University are helping develop a strategic vision for the site's future, which could include options for paying utility bills and downloading forms for enrolling in city programs.

But for now, the basics are enough.

"It was a struggle just trying to get it listed on the Yahoo! directory," said Jeff Dingman, city administrator for the community of 3,800 people. "You'd put 'Baldwin City' in there and get different Web sites. You didn't get to the right one."

No site in sight

Eudora's even farther behind. The city doesn't have its own Web site, as leaders prefer to invest in the nuts and bolts of municipal services.

"It'd be a great feature, but right now we're just directing our resources at the basics: water, sewer, streets, police, fire and parks and recreation," said Mike Yanez, city administrator. "Besides, Eudora's still a small-enough town where people know how to come and see us and talk to us."

Yanez finds some degree of comfort in the Pew survey's results. Of the 54 percent of Americans who contacted their governments last year, telephone and in-person visits were preferable to Internet connections by a margin of 53 percent to 37 percent.

Count Spink among them. As the abstract researcher walked down the steps of the Douglas County Courthouse last week -- copies of title documents tucked firmly under his arm -- Spink acknowledged that the pressure to boost e-government offerings would increase with each passing day.

Not that he's all that excited about it.

"I've been doing this for 10 years, and I've probably heard about e-government for the past eight," said Spink, whose territory covers Douglas, Jefferson, Leavenworth, Wyandotte, Johnson and Miami counties. "For me, it's more or less, 'When I see it, I'll believe it.'"

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