Cathilea Robinett, a judge for Government Technology magazine's “Best of the Web” contest didn't have high expectations when she pulled up the Web site for Douglas County, Nevada. As the words "waiting for reply" danced across the bottom of her computer screen, she anticipated a ho-hum homepage containing a de rigueur photo of Douglas' county commissioner.
Robinett couldn't have been further off the mark.
"I was thrilled to find that in this tiny county of 40,000 people, with a part-time web master who also happens to be the deputy treasurer, they are doing more online than most big cities," says Robinett, executive director of Government Technology's Center for Digital Government.
Douglas County was one of 10 state and local jurisdictions recognized for Web site excellence by Robinett and her publication last month. Competing against 185 other Web destinations, North Carolina's won first prize, Georgia's came in second, while Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles garnered third place.
Douglas County's Web site exceled at directing viewers to election information, government agendas, reports and statistics and government services such as licensing. "The great thing about it was the treasurer (Barbara J. Reed) didn't know there were any barriers, or that it was hard," Robinett says "She just wanted (to get) it done."
North Carolina is unique because it created a site driven by customer needs, according to Robinett. The Tar Heel State partnered with Yahoo! to bring Yahoo! data to its site.
In the meantime, 16 other states have plans to contract with outside vendors along the lines of Yahoo! and Microsoft.
The state generally viewed as having one of the most innovative sites, Georgia, already allows students to apply for college courses online, Robinett says.
Virginia's Internet DMV destination was striking because of the ease with which visitors could access DMV services, as opposed to waiting in a line, Robinett says.
Government Technology's Web site contest was launched in 1995, when Robinett's center teamed up with State Technologies, a New York non-profit that focuses on how policy and technology impact the private sector. State and local sites are selected based on site innovation, efficiency, economy and ability to perform various functions. In addition to public recognition, winners receive checks ranging from $1,500 to $5,000.
"In 1995 there were no portals -- the word didn't even exist until two years ago," Robinett recalls. Back then, state sites tended to be fairly static affairs typically topped off with an unremarkable photo of some government functionary. "We've gone to the next level and I think next year I'm just going to be amazed," Robinett says.
She expects to see more and more cities and counties joining forces to build regional portals.
Currently, a growing number of states let citizens apply for licenses, vehicle registration, tax forms and grant applications online. Providing online transactions can allow a state to cut administration costs by as much as 70 percent, according to IBM's Institute for Electronic Government. The flip side to that is the cost of placing the newest bells and whistles on a Web site. Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Michigan have each considered selling ad space on their sites, while other states are charging citizens small fees for online transactions.
This year's Government Technology awards were co-sponsored by Public Technology Inc., a national non-profit dedicated to furthering the use of technology by governments. States whose Web sites earned honorable mention include Maine, South Dakota and Virginia.