Thursday, October 14, 2010

State Governments Using Tech to Help Citizens Help Themselves

    State Governments Using Tech to Help Citizens Help Themselves
  • Three award-winning state IT projects are reducing the cost—and tedium—of public service by better enabling citizens to track down information about child support, pollution and even available college aid.
  • Three award-winning state IT projects are reducing the cost—and tedium—of public service by better enabling citizens to track down information about child support, pollution and even available college aid.By now, it's no surprise that government agencies are getting more innovative in providing services to citizens. After all, the most tech-savvy president now resides in the White House. And local and state governments are also demonstrating more than ever that they "get it" when it comes to tapping upon digital tools to get the job done.
    These days, however, tech solutions launched by state governments are often about enabling these citizens to better serve themselves. At least that's the impression conveyed by several states that recently won "Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Information Technology" awards from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. Here are three citizen "self-service" project winners that are empowering taxpayers to better seek—and find—what they need:
    Arkansas's YOUniversal Financial Aid Management System: Millions of dollars in state scholarship and aid funds have remained unused because students, parents and high-school counselors have been unaware that the money was available, or the process to apply for the funds was too confusing and unclear. The Arkansas Department of Higher Education thus created the YOUniversal system to consolidate the application for 21 financial aid programs into one database. From the user's perspective, the Microsoft-based system guides inquiring students, parents and school staff through a series of questions—such as the student's age, GPA and household income level—to more easily connect them with the appropriate available assistance opportunity. The system is projected this year to offer more than 50,000 scholarships with a value of at least $150 million, up from an estimated $48 million in aid before the launch.
    Pennsylvania's child-support portal: In Pennsylvania, an estimated 10 percent of the population is involved with a child-support situation, whether they're parents, children or employers of parents. In the past, the only way for these participants to ask questions or update information was to either call or visit a local state office. This, along with individuals being unable to show up at hearings and other proceedings, led to unnecessary time burdens and logjams for case workers.
    That's when Pennsylvania decided to launch its Child Support Website. The portal integrates voice-recognition and Web self-service technologies to allow users to get answers to their own questions, freeing up case workers to focus on tracking down missing parents and monitoring cases. The system provides seven different user "viewpoints," including links for those paying and receiving support, and for employers who are required to deduct funds from paychecks to ensure support is paid. It provides "e-reminders" to participants so they can better track their court dates and payment schedules. It allows users to automatically update personal information, such as addresses and phone numbers, thereby significantly reducing case workers' workloads.
    Among the benefits in ROI, the state has saved about $15 million through the reduction of no-show appointments alone. And an extra $3.5 million in support is being collected every year thanks to the system's wage-attachment function.

    Minnesota's "What's in My Neighborhood" Website: Given concerns over emissions, water contamination and other environmental hazards, average citizens may sometimes wonder how safe their communities are. In seeking to provide greater transparency, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency expanded its "What's in My Neighborhood" portal, allowing residents to access information about air, water and waste permits impacting more than 150,000 facilities throughout the state. Using a map and text interfaces, they can keep up with inspections, enforcement activities and other developments that affect their community. The topic points covered by the site includes air emissions, wastewater discharges and solid/hazardous waste activity. As a result, members of the public have access to data on an estimated 30 times the number of facilities than they did before.


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