In the late 1990s, as governments began offering services online, many struggled to integrate sometimes decades-old processes with modern technology. As government officials and staff members have grown more comfortable with e-government, and residents have come to expect online services, many cities and counties and their leaders now are focused on ensuring that those services consistently follow public policy.

Using advances in e-government technology, agencies are streamlining even the most complex processes, and their department managers are tailoring their own business applications. But, the applications still need to maintain citywide policy standards, which are best set by the top administrative leaders. For example, some departments add public surcharges for online services to recoup costs, but that discourages some residents from using the service, which fails to shift their behavior to online self-service. If the goal is to create online tools to encourage interaction with government service, the surcharge does not follow the policy.

In May 2008, Houston Mayor Bill White called for creating an online portal for permits and licenses so residents and businesses could apply online and pay fees with credit cards. The city issued more than 435,000 permits totaling more than $50 million in 2007, and it needed a more automated system to speed the process and make it easier for applicants.

The director of administration and regulatory affairs worked with the IT department and software vendor GovPartner to implement an application that would transfer all permits and licenses to a Web-based system. Phase I of the project, which migrated all staff and historical data from an antiquated mainframe system to a .NET platform, was completed July 2008, in 90 days.

Three key factors made that possible. First, Mayor White's strong directive made clear that a new system was needed, and it was to be accomplished without delay. Second, the partnership between the administration department, IT and the vendor ensured that the online process would be relatively simple for staff and the public, while conforming to city policy and e-government standards. Finally, everyone involved was committed to training employees to use the new system. Because high-level managers worked closely with IT staff to outline clear project details, the resulting back-office system for staff, the pending public portal and the new procedures are as acceptable to council and the public as to the departments that are using them to conduct business.

Urbandale, Iowa, followed that same formula in 2002 to streamline its permitting, service requests and parks and recreation class registrations. And, in 2005, Murrieta, Calif., officials converted community development operations to online services to help manage construction and planning fees using a strong system of checks and controls.

Local governments are continuing to take advantage of the advancements in technology that are making online services more customizable than many thought possible. However, they also are recognizing that administrators and elected officials must direct changes across departmental lines if e-government services are going to be successful, comprehensive and on target with community goals.

Alfred J. Moran Jr. is the director of administration and regulatory affairs for Houston. Mike Daniel is the president of Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based GovPartner.