Prince George’s officials aim for fewer lines, more clicks -- Gazette.Net


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Getting permits to build a deck or swimming pool soon won’t require a trip to a Prince George’s County government building. Instead of waiting in lines, residents will be able to file permit applications online, thanks to a new mobile application and feature on its website.

“You can see the progress of the permit, which adds another level of transparency in the process,” said Vennard Wright, the county’s chief information officer/director with the Office of Information Technology. “People can submit their plan online and make their payments there as well.”

Wright said the upcoming feature is among a list of online services officials are incorporating on the county’s website, www.princegeorgescountymd.gov, to provide faster service — despite a shrinking technology budget.

The technology office budget dropped from $33.2 million in fiscal 2013 to $31.4 million this fiscal year, a trend Wright expects to continue due to sagging real estate revenue and escalating costs. The county faced a $152 million deficit in the fiscal 2014 budget cycle. The site will cost $479,000 per year to maintain and adding new features will not incur additional costs.

The financial challenges have forced the office to work smarter, while still meeting the growing demand on the website and for mobile applications that keep residents from having to make the trek or place a call to county offices.

“It forces us to be more efficient,” Wright said. “... So before we would replace our laptops every two years and desktops every three years; now we replace them every three and five years.”

Todd Sander, executive director for the California-based Center for Digital Government, said there is “absolutely a trend” of governments nationwide trying to meet the demand of higher Web usage while dealing with dwindling resources.

“Some see technology as a way to extend services at a lower cost through their websites, while others view it as a cost center that could be cut,” he said.

Mobile applications — services that can be accessed via smartphone or other mobile electronic device — rank at the top of the county’s technology efforts, Wright said.

County website statistics show a significant shift in use of mobile devices. From Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2012, Google Analytics — a free service the county uses that provides detailed statistics about a website’s traffic — logged 523,387 mobile visits to the county’s website and 122,940 tablet visits. Website visits are the individual sessions a visitor has while viewing a site and a visitor could potentially visit multiple pages during one visit. Figures for 2013 are poised to more than double, with 361,349 unique mobile visitors compared to 523,387 in 2012, and 103,031 tablet views from Jan. 1 to June 27 compared to 122,940 views in all of 2012. Desktop page views in 2012 were 2,984,725 and for statistics up to June 2013, desktop page views were trending lower at 1,407,263.

Wright said the county has worked to encourage mobile use, especially during emergency situations, since the website can be frequently updated rather than having residents constantly call for information.

When the county unveiled its new $1.5 million CountyClick311 call center, a service that allows complaints and service requests to be called in by dialing 311 or submitted online, officials first unveiled only the mobile application. Residents weren’t able to call in to the center until three months later, a plan officials hoped would get residents in the habit of using the mobile application.

“We’re trying to shake the behavior,” Wright said regarding having residents call or visit offices for services.

Officials reached out to community groups last year to get feedback on the website. A $448,827 site makeover was completed this year based on resident feedback that information was hard to find and access, but features are continually being added, Wright said.

To facilitate faster online updates, individual departments are now able to post information instead of waiting for the Office of Information Technology to do postings.

“Police, for example, have a lot of updates and, before, they would have to submit a service request ticket, we would put it in the queue and we’d get to it,” Wright said. “... Now, they can do it right away.”

Website security is an ongoing focus, Wright said, as users are able to pay online for tickets, court costs and permits using credit cards.

“We make sure data is secure and make sure our network traffic is partitioned from the networks that receive that information,” Wright said. “To be honest, in the past, it’s been more based on luck than planning, but now we’re putting a lot more resources and safeguards in place.”

Vulnerability tests to determine whether the site can withstand being hacked are performed quarterly and whenever new products are installed.

Wright said Prince George’s analytics show what city a person is from when they log in, but the website does not collect any other significant personal or service provider information. Users can also remain anonymous when filing requests or complaints on the website, an issue that has posed challenges for other jurisdictions, according to William Rand, director of the Center for Complexity in Business at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.

While some information, such as residents’ tax returns, undoubtedly should remain private, there are some instances that are less clear, Rand said. For example, a resident may file a complaint about a neighbor expecting their name to be withheld, but the government may consider all complaints a public matter, Rand said.

jlyles@gazette.net