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March 07, 2010

The e-state; More for Less

Technology can make government both more effective and much cheaper to operate. Does this sound too good to be true? It's not; it's a fact.

Bureaucracies in the private and the public sector were designed around bureaus, places that records were kept. It used to be that you had to go the branch of the bank where your account records were to make a withdrawal; other branches didn't know what your balance was. If you needed to interact with the government bureaucracy, you had to go to the office where your records were kept; otherwise no one would be able to deal with you. To make life even more complex, your tax records might be in one office; your fishing license in a second office; and your property information elsewhere. Sound familiar?

But once records become electronic, they're wherever you need them to be. It doesn't matter whether they're in a corporate data center, on a disk in a state office. or somewhere off in a huge computer center operated by Google or Amazon (technically this is called being "in the cloud"). When you need access to them, they're where you are. You can withdraw money from any ATM (at least if you don't mind fees); you can charge at any store; and you ought to be able to go into any government office to do whatever government business you need to do.

Spurred by shrinking budgets and enabled by cheaper and cheaper technology, Vermont is moving away from paper and towards electronic records – towards becoming an e-state. As this migration continues, costs'll come down and you'll get better service.

Currently many agencies which deal with the public have regional offices to make it convenient for you to get to them. Because, in many cases, your files are kept in your regional office, you can only do business in that office. Moreover, different agencies have different files and different specialties; so, in order for there to be an office of whatever you need near you, there have to be lots of offices in each region. In the cases where you can do business by phone, you have to be sure to call the office near you. If there's a line of people waiting at your local office, you wait, too, even if there are office workers with no clients at some other regional office of the same agency.

But flash forward to your records living in the cloud. Now it doesn't matter which regional office you go to or call, your records are accessible when needed. Moreover, the state doesn't need as many specialized offices because any kind of record can be retrieved at any office and much of the specialized expertise is available online. So the state can have less offices (less cost) and yet it is more likely that there'll be an office which can help with your particular case near you whether you're at home or on the road (better service) because you can go to any office.

If all the workers in one office are on the phone, calls can go to another office. The callers records are wherever they need to be.

But, you're asking, if my records can be wherever I am, why do I have to go to an office at all? Good question. More and more often you won't have to. Nor will you have to wait for mailed documents to go back and forth. Just as we can renew our car registrations online, we'll soon be able to transact most of our business with the state from applying for a permit to getting a fishing license to getting benefits in time of need. It costs state government less to do business online; it's usually better, faster, and more convenient service for you. Doesn't mean regional offices will all go away; sometimes we all need inperson help. But this switch to web-based government, just like the switch to web-based flight reservations and banking, means better service to clients at lower cost to the service provider. Not too good to be true.

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