Michigan.gov is the place to go for inquisitive citizens with an Internet hookup, winning the No. 1 ranking in a new survey that rates state and local e-governments.
Michigan's Web site, which opens with an inviting view of Luddington State Park's Big Sable Lighthouse overlooking Lake Michigan, was first on a top-10 list of digital states honored in July by the Center for Digital Government.
The center, a for-profit research and advisory institute based in Folsom, Calif., awarded second place to Washington, which was recognized as the country's original leading digital state in 1997. Rounding out the top 10, in order of their ranking, were Virginia, Indiana, Arizona, South Dakota (which shot up to sixth place from 49th place in 1997), Tennessee, Utah, Arkansas and, tied for 10th place, Colorado and North Carolina.
While most states now provide digital access to information such as vital statistics, vehicle registration renewals, contractor lists and child-support billing, Michigan stood out for its development of new and innovative services, said Janet Grenslitt, the director of survey and award programs at the center.
One of the state's new programs, called "Map Michigan," is loaded with charts that can lead users to all the state's waterfalls, a playing field in another town, the nearest boat launch or the fastest route to a specific address. Through the state Department of Information Technology, residents also can request maps that plot statistics, such as demographics in a specific region or the number of poor children on welfare in different parts of a city.
Another link offers a leg up to school kids. Michigan students gearing up for the Michigan Educational Assessment Program -- known as the MEAP test -- can take practice tests for the different subject exams for fourth-, eighth- and 11th-graders. Students can download the grading rubric used to evaluate the writing section or answer math word problems.
Opening the doors of state government to computer users is becoming vital state business these days. Sixty-three percent of American adults now access the Internet, and last year nearly 97 million adults -- 77 percent of Internet users -- linked up to e-government, according to a survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a research project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.
The Center for Digital Government survey, which was sponsored by Microsoft and Hewlett Packard, examined more than 60 criteria in four categories: service delivery, architecture and infrastructure, collaboration and leadership. High-scoring sites were specifically recognized for their security measures and ties to federal, county, city and nonprofit groups, Grenslitt, the survey's director, said.
"Michigan was balanced; it did well in all of the judged areas. There was a lot of collaboration and effort there that resulted in a lot of savings for taxpayers in the long run. You can say that about all of the states in the top 10, but Michigan really excelled in all four areas," Grenslitt said.
Kurt Weiss, the public information officer at the Michigan Department of Information Technology, said feedback from users helped the state develop the site and come up with more changes for the future.
"We know that the journey isn't even close to being over. We still have a lot more great things to come," Weiss said.
Some of Michigan's success can be attributed to former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), who created the Department of Information Technology as he left office two years ago in an effort to consolidate information technology programs from different state agencies, Weiss said. It started out with a budget of $420 million, but statewide cutbacks dropped its current budget to $360 million.
"What's promising is that we've been able to do all of these great things in the midst of a terrible budget crisis," Weiss said.
Although the center used to release a top-10 list ranking state governments more frequently, it switched to publishing its survey every other year, making the 2004 list the first since 2002. The change was made to provide a longer time horizon to assess state progress. Separately, the center rates legislatures' Web sites, with Nevada's Legislature rated first last year.
"It took a while for e-government to get off the ground, but now the states are off and running," Grenslitt said.