Personalized portals hit road bump

Just about every government has a Web portal providing a single point of entry into the whole public administration. The portals aim to hide the size and complexity of government, which for so long have been barriers to easy access to public sector information and services. It was figured out early on that

e-government would never succeed if people were expected to deal with a quad-zillion different departments and agencies, each with their own Web site,

and a gobbledy-gook URL that was impossible to guess or remember. So the Web portal rode to the rescue, promising to be the magnet for the needles in the public sector haystack.

There have been a few commendable efforts to turn the portals from mere pools of information into delivery channels, providing organizational boundary-busting services in a way that was important to the citizen rather than to the bureaucracy. Singapore’s eCitizen Centre portal has grown to encompass 49 “life events,” from giving birth and attending school to retiring from the workforce. In July 2000, the state of Virginia pioneered the personalized, or intentions-based, government portal with its My Virginia Homepage, letting citizens tailor online government services to their particular needs and tastes. Pennsylvania followed suit with PAPowerPort, which provides personalization as well as value-added services so people can check the news, weather and stock market quotes, open e-mail accounts, participate in chat rooms, view Webcasts, design their own Web pages and even manage their finances online.

The governments of Singapore, Hong Kong, France, and the Netherlands now have portals with intentions-based designs. The Dutch portal allows citizens to customize the site by postal code.

All great stuff, but government still has a long way to go to match some of the customer service innovations embraced by the private sector. Take eBay. The online auction site changes the look of its home page as market opportunities arise – nearly every day in some cases. For example, the company opened a new storefront devoted to Michael Jordan memorabilia the very morning after the basketball star announced his retirement from the Chicago Bulls. This “eBay effect” could be replicated with tremendous success in government.

For government portals, it ought to be full steam ahead towards customer relationship management. Still largely unexplored and untested by government, Customer relationship management has the potential to enhance intentions-based portal designs further and enable “segmentation” (or “mass customization”). It is increasingly common in the private sector as it allows companies to maximize their profits by targeting “high value” customers and rejecting the unprofitable ones, including those poor souls who lack Internet access. The concept understandably makes many government folk squeamish; it’s totally at odds with the public sector imperative to serve all citizens equally. But there is already segmentation going on in many government portals, albeit on an extremely simplistic basis: people are segmented as citizens (G2C), businesses (G2B) or civil servants (G2E).

But wait. The drive for added value and further personalization of government portals seems to have slowed to a crawl, if it hasn’t already come to complete halt. Put this down to a creeping political impatience to see the benefits of e-government, coupled with a greater focus on cost savings in light of the volatile economy and post-Sept. 11 realities.

Politicians and senior officials were told that e-government would save them money. It hasn’t. It probably never will. The big cheeses are just now realizing that e-government is an additional activity that requires additional spending. They feel they were duped. Now, faced with budget shortfalls for the first time since way before Monica Lewinsky, many decision makers are adopting draconian measures to balance the books – and any program beginning with the letter “e” is a candidate for the chop.

Luckily, the portals are already there. They can’t very well be switched off. (Or can they? Watch some people try). But governments are taking stock, trying to figure out how to simply add and remove content and run their sites in the cheapest way possible. So don’t expect any new whiz-bang functionality to be added to your friendly neighborhood government portal any time soon.

Canadian native Douglas Holmes is a Paris-based specialist on IT issues in the public sector. The author of e-Business Strategies for Government, he may be reached at