By Kameel Stanley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Loudoun County's Web site might not be the sexiest in the world, but when compared with other local governments', it's near the top.
The Center for Digital Government and the National Association of Counties ranked Loudoun as the No. 1 information technology innovator among counties with populations of 250,000 to 499,999.
"It's a very competitive award," said Supervisor Andrea McGimsey (D-Potomac), who accepted the award at a ceremony last week. "People really fight to be number one."
Loudoun has made the list before but never the top spot.
The competition evaluates jurisdictions using about 100 benchmarks, including the way they use technology, their Web sites, and their planning and organization.
Loudoun's strategy has been to concentrate on function rather than flashy graphics, said Jim Barnes, the county's director of public information.
"Our focus has always been usability rather than something to knock a person's socks off," he said.
The site features land databases, webcasts of government meetings, photos of animals available for adoption and an alert system.
Recently, residents gained access to online bidding for the surplus store and a system that allows job applicants to create profiles.
This latest recognition adds to the momentum built during the past decade, Barnes said.
Gene Troxell, information technology director, said the county has several initiatives to make its Web site more interactive.
Officials are working to mobilize building inspectors to wirelessly transmit inspection reports. There also is talk of allowing building permit requests to be submitted online.
Eventually, officials hope to create a site that allows residents to be virtual participants with government, said Bill McIntyre, Internet services manager. The ultra-customized site would be tailored to a resident's specific needs, displaying information about the person's tax bills and electoral district and a personal government page.
"That's our goal, to make it more customized, inclusive for the citizens," he said.
The county also is undergoing a project to implement imaging, which involves scanning and converting documents into electronic form. Imaging is considered one of the "green" methods Loudoun can use to save money, Troxell said.
Although some projects, such as the imaging, might take years to complete, the county has an advantage in that it manages its Web site in-house, Troxell said. Officials can easily address problems when they arise, and the process for implementing ideas is more simple. Troxell's department has a budget of about $787,000 to run the county's Internet and intranet services, he said.
When Loudoun launched its Web site in 1997, the aim was to disseminate basic government information with an emphasis on economic development. About 70 people per day visited the site, which had about 100 pages.
But as the county and the Internet grew, so did expectations.
In 2001, 92 percent of households had access to the Internet, according to a county survey. Many of those people came from tech backgrounds, Troxell said, which only increased the need to have a well-developed Web site.
In August 1998, the county hired its first employee dedicated to the Web site, and in 2001, it undertook an "e-government" initiative.
These days, officials estimate 3 million people view thousands of pages each year.
"We live in one of the digital capitals of the world," McGimsey said. "Our citizens expect that."
Loudoun wasn't the only Northern Virginia county to place in the competition. Prince William County, in the same category as Loudoun, came in sixth. Fairfax County took third among jurisdictions with populations of 500,000 or more.
The emphasis on government Web sites in recent years has stemmed from increased accessibility of the Internet, Barnes said.
"It's a constant challenge," he said, but "it can help make government operate more efficiently."