John Costello investigates how government organisations at all levels are using portal technology in a variety of ways to meet the needs of their communities.
Two recent reports have shone the spotlight on portals as a means for governments at all levels to improve service levels to their communities. The first, from the United Nations Division for Public Economics and Public Administration, says Australia leads the Asia-Pacific region in the transition to e-government.
The report, Benchmarking e-Government: A Global Perspective, ranks countries against several key criteria such as sophistication of online services, Internet penetration rates, and the Web presence of governments. It places Australia second only to the US. According to the report, Australia demonstrates a balanced and "citizen-centric" e-government program with well-developed technological infrastructure.
The second report highlights portals as the next wave of delivery mechanisms to connect people with the Internet, with Chris Reckling, a senior manager in IBM's Websphere portal solutions operation, pushing the line. Reckling told Computerworld that portals will be the "next generation of the intranet". He claimed the main benefits of moving from an intranet to a portal environment are: "cost savings, the ability to impose the same 'look and feel' throughout the company ensuring consistent user experience, and that portals can be easily spun off with different applications added".
Numbers of Australian government agencies across all levels would clearly agree, and are already using portals to the benefit of their communities.
DIVERSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION IN DAREBIN
The City of Darebin's aim is to open up information services for everybody in the community. Responsible for local government services in part of Melbourne's northern suburbs, Darebin has a population of about 120,000. To better address that population's needs, Darebin set up a portal - darebin.org - giving access over the Internet to a wide variety of services in the community.
"We have a standard council Web site that does all the sort of things we must and can do over the Internet," says Pradeep Agrawal, Darebin's IT manager. "Our population comes from diverse backgrounds. We wanted to offer them such services as the ability to run low-cost Web hosting if they needed. We also recognise there are a lot of not-for-profit organisations [NFPs] in our area that are not directly part of council. We set up darebin.org to give them a presence on the Internet."
These NFPs range from schools and childminding centres to community organisations like Rotary Clubs and include council facilities such as libraries. Also included in darebin.org are directories of businesses and business services and sports clubs. Citizens enjoy free access to the council's Web sites and darebin.org via public libraries in the council area. In addition, the community portal also offers a free e-mail service.
And realising the value of portals, Darebin has also set up a geographic information system (GIS). Here, the entire council area is mapped down to individual properties. Overlaid on this is council information related to each property including garbage collection days, nearest school and library, heritage listings and planning zones. Based on Autodesk mapping technology, the site allows users to type in the address of a property to have its location and related information displayed. A separate entry into the GIS gives overlays of features such as planning zones and areas of environmental significance.
"The GIS and darebin.org have given us an idea of where portals can take us and we will be looking at developing these systems further," Agrawal says.
A TEACHERS' RESOURCE THAT BRINGS TAFE CAMPUSES TOGETHER
Queensland TAFE had a different problem to tackle using portal technology. With 14 TAFE institutes on more than 80 campuses scattered across the state delivering vocational education and training, Queensland TAFE saw the need for its 3500 educational and support staff to share teaching resources.
"We weren't like a bank with a set number of documents to manage," Greg Harper, director of product services at Queensland TAFE, says. "We wanted an open-ended document management system that could handle a dynamic, evolving model. Teachers are always learning from each other. They needed to own the material in the portal," Harper says.
Having evaluated and rejected available commercial products, Queensland TAFE worked with a networking integrator to develop its VPNWeb, a central repository of data from all TAFE institutes that could be configured to meet the needs of individual institutes. VPNWeb led to the development of Product Exchange Network (PEN). The two interrelated systems - VPNWeb and PEN - share key components and directory structure but are tailored to deliver teaching resource management and distribution.
The system provides a single access and delivery point for resources, allowing centralised management, effective remote distribution and sharing of teaching resources. Harper says this has reduced resource duplication and provides easy and effective access to the latest teaching materials for remote sites.
PEN provides the ability to upload files of any type and URL addresses from remote sites to a central server and also lets officials edit or change files. Users across the state can then access the server, search for resources and then view or download them. Alternatively, users who are administrators can edit resources from any author, ensuring resources are not only stored but also centrally maintained, so that changes are instantly available to all users.
More than 1000 teachers have registered to use the service since it went live in April, with around another 10 being added every day. Helen Wotton, TAFE's project manager in its systems implementation and development unit, says the take-up rate was unusually high for a project of this type. "It shows there is a good deal of enthusiasm for the service," says Wotton. "We expect most of our core teaching staff will be using the service before the end of the year."
Harper says the project has put control and power over teaching resources back in the hands of the teachers and trainers. "It has also recognised that teaching staff are the best place for the creation of teaching resources," he says. Importantly, the portal has also played a crucial role in raising the level of IT skills and awareness across TAFE staff, "particularly for those left behind by developments in IT in recent years".
Harper points out Web portals may not always be the ideal delivery mechanism for all courses and subjects. "For example, one of the Brisbane TAFEs has the only campus in the state with bakery teachers. I think there are about three teachers. You don't need a Web portal for them."
NSW GOVERNMENT FOCUSES ON EASY ACCESS AND USER INVOLVEMENT
In NSW, the state government has initiated a Web site Quality Program to make its departments' and agencies' Web sites more accessible to users. Under the program, representatives from more than 70 NSW government agencies have already attended training workshops to help them make their Web sites easier to get to and use. The main aim of the program is to train developers to focus on the needs of the user and on ways to involve users in the development of Web sites.
The government's Web portal - ServiceNSW - has more than 3000 links to other sites. The portal makes a range of services available: from train timetables to registration of boats; bill paying to booking tickets for events at the Sydney Opera House; and even checking the weather.
The NSW government says in an average month there are more than 12 million page views on its Web sites - more than double that of Victoria, which it says was next in line in terms of Web site use in Australia.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER AT THE AUSTRALIAN PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION
In Canberra, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) has a key role in promoting and evaluating the implementation of the APS Values and the APS Code of Conduct throughout the federal public service. "We are increasingly governed by values rather than rules," says Jenny Keene, IT and communications manager for the APSC. "It means we are more advisory than regulatory."
Originally known as the Public Service and Merit Protection Commission, the APSC has two facets: a public face through its public Web site, and a face towards its clients, the rest of the public service. It is also a site regularly used by academics and overseas organisations researching aspects of government administration.
Soon after her appointment about a year ago, Keene realised the commission needed to revamp its Web site. "We had disparate content from a wide range of sources and we needed to pull that together in a portal with a searchable document directory," Keene says.
"We needed something powerful, and needed it quickly," says Mike Jones, the APSC's corporate strategy and support team leader. "We didn't have the time or resources to build it." Most of the IT functions of the APSC have been outsourced.
Keene says the new portal, which uses portal technology from Plumtree, was deployed in seven days. It has given the APSC a new Web framework incorporating enterprise applications, including SAP and Microsoft Exchange e-mail and calendar, as well as existing intranet resources.
The APSC's vision for the portal and its ambition to Web-enable its organisation is shared among similar government organisations within Australia and worldwide, says Plumtree's CEO John Kunze.
CLIENT CENTRIC SOLUTION IS AUSTRADE'S RESPONSE TO VARIED CUSTOMER NEEDS
The Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) is the federal government agency that helps Australian companies win overseas business for their products and services by reducing the time, cost and risk involved in selecting, entering and developing international markets. The agency offers advice, market intelligence and ongoing support (including financial) to Australian businesses looking to develop international markets.
Austrade also provides advice and guidance on overseas investment and joint venture opportunities, and helps put Australian businesses in contact with potential overseas investors. It relies extensively on its network of more than 100 offices in 61 countries to keep it up to date on what is happening in overseas markets. Helen Monro, Austrade's e-commerce manager, says the organisation has had a Web site since 1996. "We wanted to move from being just a 'brochure' site to something more dynamic," Monro says. The plan was for the redeveloped Web site to provide a portal that was centred on the client (the exporter) rather than focusing on Austrade.
Beyond this, Austrade wanted to move from being a government agency with a Web site to being a Web-based organisation. This would allow exporters to interact with Austrade via the Internet and for Austrade to provide its services seamlessly across online and offline channels. "We wanted a stable and scalable infrastructure allowing for increased functionality and greater interaction with our other systems such as our main client database and workflows system," Monro says.
As well as looking for opportunities for potential exporters, Austrade also looks for buyers in overseas markets potentially interested in purchasing Australian products and services. The site has to cater for them, too. "The more we looked at our requirements, the more we realised they were more advanced than we thought," Monro says. "We were looking basically at a content management system with about 80 content providers.
"On the other side we had exporters and potential exporters that were SMEs. They needed a site that was client-focused," she says. "We now have a dynamic portal with information and services all in one place."
Monro says feedback has been good. "We're now looking at providing even more functionality on the site," she says. Also planned is decentralising the agency's communications infrastructure away from its Canberra base.
It is just one more example of how portal technology and its emphasis on the user can affect the mindset of an organisation.
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