Internet Changing Face of State Government
By Jason White, Assistant Staff Writer
Ever wanted to tour the New Hampshire State House? Rather stroll through the Colorado governor's mansion instead? Perhaps you'd like to hear the cry of a loon as it glides over Minnesota's lakes region? Or maybe you're thinking of making a movie in Mississippi and would like to investigate the area and its resources?
Until very recently, it would have been nearly impossible for the average person to do all these things in a year, never mind in an hour. Most people have neither the time nor the resources to travel around the country chasing state house tours and birds or scouting movie locations.
But as surprising as it may seem, these tasks can be accomplished in minutes with just a few mouse clicks on the New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, and Mississippi state web sites.
Once as convoluted as VCR programming instructions and about as fun to read as bureaucratic regulations, most state web sites have undergone major facelifts over the past few years. Many are now quite easy to use and teem with the life of Yahoo! or an America Online chat room.
On many state web sites people can check lottery scores, search for jobs, read travel brochures, identify sex offenders, find flight information, check school performance, take polls, answer trivia questions, tour historic buildings, send comments to the governor, track legislation, and pay taxes.
Amazingly, these examples are just the tip of an iceberg that gets larger every day.
A number of state web sites have special areas for children.
- Alaska's "Kewl Kids" includes a 6th grade class report on moose, complete with poetry, comics, hunting stories, and statistics.
- Student artwork, poetry, and creative writing is displayed on New Jersey's "Hangout" section, along with the story of Jackie Gleason's failure as an Atlantic City comic and his unlikely rise to stardom on television's the "Honeymooners."
- In Illinois' "KidZone," children can enter a monthly fire safety drawing competition with the winner's artwork displayed on the web site for the next month.
Pages promoting tourism are prevalent on many state web sites. Vermont woos visitors with pictures of skiers and snow-boarders swooshing down snow-covered mountains, with links to resorts and trail conditions. Ohio has links to its selected "Hot Spots," which include the rock and roll hall of fame, SixFlags, and Amish Country. And a truly hot spot, Florida, prominently features its white, sandy beaches and world-class golf courses on its tourism page.
On the administrative side, many state service transactions are now handled through the Internet. These include vehicle registrations, driver's license applications, hunting and fishing licenses, tax forms, and grant applications.
States are also using the Internet to move beyond their traditional role.school "report cards" on its web site. Remember the nervousness you felt when grading time rolled around? Well, imagine if your report card was distributed not just to your parents but to the whole world. That is the situation faced by Missouri school administrators as the performance of each district is measured against state statistics in categories such as teacher experience, dropout rates, and reading scores, and then posted online.
In a controversial move, more than fifteen states have added a page to their web sites that allows people to search for sex offenders by name or zip code. While hailed by advocates as a measure to protect public safety, detractors claim the posting of personal information on the internet violates the constitutional right to privacy of the offenders.
To ward off a possible court ruling that posting such information is unconstitutional, committees in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly unanimously approved in May an amendment to the state Constitution that would authorize the posting of names, faces, and criminal histories of sex offenders on the Web.
State web sites have evolved rapidly. In just a few years, they have been transformed from stale "brochureware" to more interactive and lively designs. This process will likely continue as web technology improves. It's conceivable that in just a few years a visitor to a state web site will be greeted with a warm "Hello John Doe, it's a beautiful day isn't it? By the way, your driver's license expires soon. Click here to renew." Or even better: "Hello John Doe, your tax liability is smaller than expected. Your refund check is in the mail.