By Sean Ingram
Originally Published by The Russellville Courier Online
Can you imagine a world where you couldn’t pay taxes, renew your tags or conduct a criminal background check online?
That world existed two decades ago. The state of Arkansas didn’t even have a website for citizens or businesses to gather information or conduct transactions.
In 1997, seven people representing the Information Network of Arkansas (INA) created the state’s first government website for the few who could access the internet through their dial-up modems. (Most of us remember how long that took and what a great sound it made.)
Digital government or e-government has evolved over the years and has not only cut down on lines at the courthouse and state offices, but has helped municipal governments save money they need in their general revenue funds. And it’s also about convenience, Russellville Mayor Randy Horton said Tuesday.
“The biggest thing is, it’s so much easier and convenient to get information,” he explained. “Sometimes we are researching where we want to go with something, and if you want to take a broad look at the issue, you can really get informed in a short period of time. For example, we may contemplate a new ordinance. We may want to look around at another city or couple of cities who already have the ordinance and review the challenges they faced.”
From a financial standpoint, Horton said there is a lot of information city personnel can refer to when they are trying to make a decision. And it’s out there any time they need access to it.
“It’s available 24 hours a day,” he said. “If we are working on something after the office is closed and we would still like to get that last detail or piece of information, it is out there any time you are ready for it.”
Digital government allows the city of Russellville to keep up with increasing demand without hiring new people, the mayor said.
“Everything was so much more hands on and involved bigger personal requirements,” Horton said. “Now, one person can do the research in a day, where it used to take three or four people days to do it.
“Government is just like business — your operation has to be as ultimately efficient as it can. That is the beauty about digital government. For those who are comfortable with it, we are moving towards more and more digital stuff. We don’t pay a courier to run something to Little Rock or pay long distance to fax it. Now we just scan it and email it. That saves us quite a bit of money.”
The INA that launched the first website for Arkansas, http://www.state.ar.us, now includes 39 people who work with more than 250 stage agencies. It developed and manages more than 800 egovernment services for the 2 million Arkansans who conduct billions of online transactions with state government annually.
Jim Von Gremp, former state representative and sponsor of the INA Act, said in an email that there was a sense the state needed to get serious about moving to the web before it got left behind.
“It wasn’t long before we realized we could put services online as well,” he explained. “Of course, there was a lot of concern at the time about security, and many people were reluctant to even use their credit card online. However, it was clear that this was the future, and the Arkansas General Assembly understood that there was only so much further we could go in improving government services without going online.
“The public/private partnership concept turned out to be the key to providing online experiences that the public expected, without expanding government and raising taxes to pay for it. Arkansas was the fifth state in the country to adopt a model that is now used by a majority of states.”
Putting government information and services online makes government faster and lowers costs to taxpayers, according to INA general manager Bob Sanders.
“For example, in 2016 alone, Arkansans conducted over 1.5 million government transactions online, saving the state an estimated $19 million,” he sad in an email. “Online services give citizens back their most valuable resource — time. Renewing vehicle tags online saves hours of time. Another benefit is the ease of use. Today’s digital services guide the user through a process, which makes understanding and complying with government requirements much easier than using paper for.”
Secretary of State Mark Martin said many don’t realizes Arkansas is already a national leader in digital government.
“Our state has placed in the top 10 in the Center for Digital Government’s Best of the Web competition every year for the last decade, and it has been recognized as “best in the nation” twice — in 2011 and 2015, along with 54 national awards for innovation” Martin responded. “Over the last two decades, the state has developed one of the largest collections of online services for government in the nation, with over 800 services available to citizens.
“Arkansas absolutely has the ability to keep up with national technology trends and is paving the way for other states. Through the public-private partnership with INA, the state released the nation’s first digital government assistant, Gov2Go. Citizens can use it to get personalized and timely reminders about their obligations with state government on desktop computers, mobile phones, Apple Watches and Apple TVs.”
New technologies are beginning to emerge that can dramatically improve the ease of use of services, Martin added.
“Conversational interfaces, artificial intelligence and the cloud, just to name a few, are driving the next wave of change. Each breakthrough gives us new opportunities to innovate on behalf of the citizens of Arkansas and find ways to help government provide better and faster service.”
The Information Network of Arkansas contributed to this report.