In the late 1990s, state government websites fell into one of three categories: very good, nonexistent and what researcher Paul Taylor of the Center for Digital Government calls the "mushy middle."
Today, all 50 states provide a growing array of services that taxpayers can access digitally from home or work, and the pacesetters in state website design and content are harder to discern.
This year, Delaware earned first place in the Center's 10 th annual Best of the Web awards for state government. Among its distinguishing features, Delaware.gov was the first state site to offer "podcasting," allowing users of Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod music players to download snippets on the history of the state and to receive automated notices on breaking state news. But in the 150 days since it began, other states have started offering podcasting, too.
"What we've got now is a few states that are really, really good, and below them we have a critical mass that a year from now could be among the top five," said Taylor, chief strategy officer for the Center, a research institute in Folsom, Calif., that looks at state and local government's use of information technology.
There is debate about which state launched the first website. California, Massachusetts, Michigan and Washington are among those laying claim, Taylor said. The first sites that appeared around 1995-96 were rudimentary, sometimes just a homepage announcing the state's presence on the Internet.
Since then, the Internet has been hosting a quiet revolution in government as the governors of the late 1990s recognized the cost efficiencies of the Web, Taylor said. It was clear providing services over the Web could reduce investments in brick and mortar and the hiring of more staff.
The 2002 elections tested the validity and value of websites. There was a large turnover of governors, most of whom had ushered their states onto the Internet. Their successors took office facing budget crunches, yet none of them touched the portals.
"The succeeding governors looked at them and recognized their value," Taylor said.
The online services offered by Delaware's Division of Corporations demonstrate this, according to Greg Hughes, manager of the Delaware Government Information Center, which oversees the website's content and design. Its calls centers have seen a 35 percent reduction in volume because of the information on the website, while last year its filings grew 17 percent without a need to hire additional staff to accommodate the growth.
State websites universally provide services such as license renewal - from driver's to hunting and fishing to professional - as well as jobless benefits, building permits, business registrations and tax filings.
States self-nominate their sites for the Center's contest, and every state participated, Taylor said. The Center's assessments were based on criteria in four categories: innovation, functionality, efficiency and economy.
Besides podcasting, Delaware's site, which gets more than 90,000 unique visitors a month, allows taxpayers to subscribe to email alerts notifying them about a host of issues and events including school closings, excessive pollution discharges and proposed regulatory changes. Subscribers also can make immediate online comments on regulation proposals.
By soliciting comment from the citizenry like this, the state is able to provide more substantive outreach than ever before, said Hughes of Delaware. "It's really about getting citizens closer to government," he said.
An interesting aspect of state government websites is the innovation, design and building has come from the bottom up, Taylor said.
"That's entirely consistent with the Internet; the innovation comes from the edges," he said, noting no central planning committee or gubernatorial stump speech could have directed, let alone encouraged, such a transformation in government.
Among the distinguishing features on the sites of other Best of Web winners are language translations. Spanish is common, but Washington's site offers five other choices: Russian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cambodian. The Asian languages, particularly Chinese, are significant in this state along the Pacific Rim, a region fast becoming an economic powerhouse. With new businesses in mind, the Evergreen State is using the website as a beacon to those markets.
All of the winners offer similar features with some exceptions: Virginia features emails to friends; Indiana offers digitally certified driver's licenses; and Tennessee allows a single click on the website to change font size, Taylor said. Of the five winners, Tennessee's website is the most compact. It doesn't quite fill the entire screen while scrolling down is required at the other sites. All of them, though, are visually appealing and easy to navigate.
Peter Durantine is a freelance journalist based in Harrisburg, Pa.