As local governments begin using more high-tech tools to conduct business, they run the risk of losing touch with the residents they serve. Instead of letting technology create a barrier between government and residents, many local governments are implementing technology that lets residents interact more closely with government.

Local governments have begun to borrow the principles of customer relationship management (CRM) software from businesses. The software lets customers contact businesses when and how they want, and it analyzes customer behavior trends, demand patterns, feedback and other criteria.

While the principles of CRM may be attractive, local governments face hurdles to implementing CRM solutions. Some cities and counties have antiquated technology, including hardware from companies that have gone out of business. Others use emulation software and settings that allow personal computers to run software applications only by mimicking a computer terminal when communicating with a host machine. Although the setup allows the application to run, emulation often slows a PC's operating system by making it do twice the work.

While outdated technology is a problem, it is not as significant a problem as no technology at all. For example, until November 2000, Bakersfield, Calif., primarily used paper-based processes to manage resident information. There are plenty of local governments operating similar systems — manually filing and hand stamping everything from property tax payments to library fines.

To make the transition from a paper-based resident request system to an automated one, Bakersfield first developed an audit trail showing how information was passed from residents through city departments. It also documented the decisions that were made along the way. The city then used a business process management (BPM) solution to integrate those procedures into its current computer applications and systems, such as the city's AS400 work order system.

The city combined the electronic forms it already used, and incorporated fax, letter and e-mail formats into a single data repository. Departmental representatives designed additional electronic forms and checked that the information flow met the expectations of the city and residents. Now, instead of visiting city offices and submitting paper requests for services, residents can visit the city's Web site and submit requests online.

Bakersfield also created a plan to measure the effectiveness of its new CRM program. City management declared that staff had to respond to Web-based inquiries within 24 hours of their receipt. The software routes inquiries to a central resource, sends them to the appropriate city departments and tracks them. Alerts are set in the software to ensure that staff members adhere to the standard response time, and responses can be logged and monitored for quality assurance.

The city also is developing a way to use the Web-based system to allow city council members to submit requests for services on behalf of their constituents. The city clerk and city manager's offices will be able to monitor the progress of the referrals, and, eventually, council members will be able to check on the status of issues in their wards.

With the CRM system, Bakersfield can monitor and act on complaints regarding everything from vandalism of public property to potholes and missed garbage pickups. All city employees can access the system and route residents' inquiries to the appropriate departments in real-time and track all activity related to an inquiry. The city has been able to use the new system with its existing hardware to keep in touch with residents and their needs.

The author is COO for Severna Park, Md.-based Metastorm.