States not afraid to go digital

Net democracy is catching on, according to a new study that rated states' online government resources.

Net democracy is catching on, according to a new study that rated states' online government resources.

The six-month "Digital State" study, by the Progress & Freedom Foundation, was funded in part by IBM's Institute for Electronic Government. States were ranked on how well they used technology and the Net in areas of public education, business regulation, taxation, health and social services, law enforcement, and the courts.

As citizens become increasingly Net dependent, they are demanding online access to simple forms or answers to frequently asked questions instead of waiting in long lines. Some states are rushing to meet the new needs while streamlining their agencies' customer service procedures.

Home to Microsoft and parts of AT&T, it was no surprise that Washington ranked No. 1 for its widespread use of technology to offer government services.

"Across the board, from making business forms available online to having a sophisticated search engine for sifting through state statutes and court decisions, Washington was doing the best job in using technology to make state government more customer-friendly and efficient," said Jeff Eisenach, president of the foundation.

"To get a better than average score, there had to be user applications instead of just information on the Web sites," he added. "In Massachusetts, for example, you can renew your driver's license online. In a number of states, you can file your taxes online or apply for college."

Washington's legislature is online, along with politicians' email addresses. Kiosks with state election information and job listings, for example, are set up in malls and grocery stores in the state's rural areas. The state also is spending $54 million to roll out a new high-speed fiber network for universities and K-12 schools this September. The fast Net access will support videoconferencing. A pilot project will be launched to let small businesses pay their taxes online.

"People have a right to have access to their government, and this technology is the best way to give them access," said Steve Kolodney, director of the Washington Department of Information Services. "Also people need to continue to learn things for the rest of their lives, but not everyone can pack up and move to a campus. We have an obligation to bring them access to education in the communities in which they live."

Trailing closely behind Washington for their cyber-savvy government practices were Wisconsin, Florida, Oregon, Maryland, Arizona, Indiana, New Jersey, Missouri, and Michigan.

In individual categories, Florida was rated the best at providing businesses with online access to licensing and regulatory materials. Indiana and Michigan tied for their higher education services. The states' students get to study for degrees over the Net or apply for admission.

Toward the bottom of the list were Connecticut, South Dakota, and Hawaii. California, home to high-tech hotbed Silicon Valley, tied for sixteenth place along with Alaska, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Oklahoma.

"There was a wide gap between the best states and those at the back of the pack," the report states. "States that fall behind in the implementation of these technologies may find themselves caught in a vicious downward spiral: unable to attract high-tech businesses, saddled with increasingly obsolete systems, and offering substandard levels of government service to an increasingly demanding populace."

The Progress and Freedom Foundation asked state governors to correct any errors in the study prior to releasing it. The group plans to update the study each year as states ramp up their efforts to get digital.

"States are in competition with each other for jobs and the economic future of their whole regions," Kolodney noted. "The states that will compete most effectively are those that are provide the most efficient, quick services, which are technology-based."

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