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Government connects to private tech firms

Sean Ryan
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Internet services tailored to government agencies are forcing public officials to weigh the ease of outsourcing against do-it-yourself savings.

Outsourcing might be the only choice in Juneau County, which posts agendas and minutes online and has for years planned to create an e-mail notification system, said Michael Hunkins, the county’s information systems director.

“It was definitely in some plans I had in the near future,” he said. “But, unfortunately, I had some setbacks with an employee passing away recently.”

The county might have to hire a company to do the job, Hunkins said, and that can sometimes work out better than doing jobs in-house.

“I have no problem with the private sector, contracting them in to do it,” he said.

But where Hunkins sees a solution, others spot a slippery slope.

“They need to alert the public to meetings and the availability of public records, and that is something that is fundamental to government,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “I am very skeptical about seeing it outsourced.”

Yet despite the skepticism, service companies such as GovDelivery Inc. are expanding into the market, a fact supported Monday with the firm’s announcement it has acquired GovLoop, an online government networking site similar to Facebook with more than 18,000 members.

The St. Paul, Minn.-based GovDelivery, founded in 1999, offers software that lets government agencies send out e-mails, texts and other messages. People can sign up to receive such public information as meeting agendas, press releases and construction updates.

Dolan Media Co., which owns Daily Reporter Publishing Co., is the largest shareholder of GovDelivery.

More than 300 government entities, including more than half of federal government agencies, use GovDelivery’s software. Wisconsin users include the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Wisconsin National Guard and the cities of Beloit and Middleton.

Public employees can make the system work for them if they know what they want, can measure whether a system can meet their needs and can set it up to change as needs change, said Scott Burns, CEO and co-founder of GovDelivery. He compared GovDelivery to standard computer programs such as Microsoft Word.

“When you buy a communications software application, you are not giving up anything,” Burns said.

The company provides software and keeps lists of e-mail addresses. GovDelivery does not own and cannot use the e-mail addresses for other purposes, he said.

“We’re not sending information out,” he said. “We’re just a delivery mechanism and really a software platform that governments are able to use and own.”

Clark County has used GovDelivery since 2002, said County Clerk Christina Jensen. Without a program to e-mail information such as trail openings and election results, the county would be back to making copies and mailing them out, she said.

The county pays about $1,000 a month for GovDelivery.

“Prior to us going with GovDelivery, we did not have a Web site,” Jensen said, “and it seemed like we got a lot more calls for records requests.”

E-mail systems are not rocket science and could be an example of government contracting for work it does not need, said McCabe, noting he is not opposed to free networking services such as GovLoop.

“I don’t think you have to go and spend a lot of money to accomplish that,” he said.

Every government action is a matter of money, Hunkins said. Sometimes, he said, the money is better spent in the private sector, particularly if that means the service reaches the people sooner.

“Any kind of timeline I would have had has been completely pushed back,” he said, “probably a year or two.”

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