In an interview with Stateline.org last January, President Bill Clinton said the Internet "will not only be a global electronic marketplace--it may also become the town square." As more state governments move to offer additional services online, President Clinton's prediction is coming true.
But a little-explored consequence of the move toward e-government is the blurring of lines between public and private, not-for-profit and profit-driven. At a time when private e-mail providers may be patronized with a simple mouse click on a state government web site, public/private distinctions are being redefined. Recently, a few states have toed, or some would say stepped over, the public/private line by developing state web sites in partnership with private companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and KPMG Consulting LLC. For their development and maintenance services, these companies receive money, either lump sum or per transaction, advertising space and/or links to their corporate web sites. Pennsylvania and Washington are two of the leaders in state web site development. But as they have developed their sites they have cut two very different paths through the forest of issues that many other states are just now beginning to encounter.
Pennsylvania is currently building a web site in partnership with Microsoft that will enable users to check weather and news, set-up e-mail accounts, design simple web pages, manage their finances, and search for jobs and businesses in the state. According to Scott Elliott, state spokesman, the main purpose of the site-- PAPowerPort --is to connect Pennsylvania's local and state agencies and governments and get as many government services online as possible. But it's the site's more unique features--its e-mail, web page design and online personal financial management services--that have riled local Internet businesses. Their complaint against the state is that these features link users to the web page of Pennsylvania's partner in the project, Microsoft, and that they duplicate services already offered by Pennsylvania's private sector.
In a position paper on the subject, Wayne Kessler, Adjunct Fellow of The Commonwealth Foundation of Pennsylvania and owner of a local Internet business, contends that through its web site Pennsylvania is using tax dollars to enable Washington-based Microsoft to compete against local companies.
Kessler writes that PAPowerPort's content should not be "provided to create marketing opportunities for select big businesses, any more than the State Capitol was built to place billboards in downtown Harrisburg, or legislation is printed to include advertising aimed at lobbyists and legislators. But that is exactly how the site would work as conceived today."
Elliott counters that Pennsylvania's goal is to spur more technology business in the state by making basic Internet services freely and widely available. But Elliott admits the difficulty of determining which services Pennsylvania should offer on its web site and which companies it should link.
"What should government do? And what should be left to private business?" he asks. "That's the challenge. Where should we draw that line?"
Due to the criticism PAPowerPort has received, the state is considering adding links to all Pennsylvania companies that offer free e-mail and related services. "We want to be as inclusive as possible," says Elliott. The introduction of the e-commerce section of PAPowerPort will be delayed until September. According to Elliott, the web site's other features should be active sometime in July.
The state of Washington has taken a very different path in building its award-winning state web site, Access Washington . While the state works with private companies in the design and maintenance of its site, much of that work is handled by state government employees. Plus, Access Washington contains few links to the web sites of private companies--it links to some educational pages for children, while a promotional page touting the state's technological and economic prowess links to some of the state's larger companies.Steve Kolodney, Director of Washington's Department of Information Services, says state employees do much of the work on Washington's state web site because that is the job to which they have been entrusted. "We are expected to bring government services online," he says. "We better figure out how to do it. It is fundamentally our business."
Beyond offering the services one would expect to find on a state web site--hunting and fishing licenses, business, tax and legislative information--Washington's site links to state government news, Washington's C-SPAN equivalent, and tourism and lottery pages.
Kolodney says Washington's site does not offer features like email or web page design because, "We haven't seen that to be at the heart of our responsibility."
Many states are rapidly developing new state web sites. In early June, North Carolina announced a web site development deal with Yahoo! According to a report from the National Association of State Information and Resource Executives , twenty-seven other states currently plan to develop new state web sites or expand existing ones--eleven states will do so using internal resources; sixteen will contract with an outside vendor.
With e-government still in its infancy, these states, like Pennsylvania and Washington, will be writing the rules of engagement for future state web site development.