With a computer, a phone or a finger's touch on an electronic screen, you can pay your county taxes, renew a library book, find out when a case is scheduled in court or see what health inspectors found on their last visit to your favorite restaurant.
Parents can track down a teacher, find directions to every county school and receive an e-mail message when there's a snow day or early dismissal. A traffic ticket can be paid with the keystrokes it takes to type a credit card number. The county budget (all 1,684 pages) is available online for the intrepid viewer. Signing up for camp, reserving a picnic area, scouting out the assessment on the house next door and even complaining to the Board of Supervisors no longer require a trip to the County Government Center or the post office.
That's just the beginning of how technology is bringing Fairfax residents and their local government closer. Across the Washington area, local governments are building user-friendly, interactive Web sites for their residents. Fairfax has upped the ante, not only by improving its site but by installing electronic satellite governments in 25 kiosks, malls, libraries and county buildings.
"The idea is for people to get to our services at their convenience, not when government is operating," said Wanda Gibson, director of the county's Department of Information Technology.
Today, the county plans to unveil a redesigned home page, www.fairfaxcounty.gov, that, technology officials say, will make it easier for visitors to find services on its Web site. The page displays local news bulletins, local weather and other features that guide users faster to such things as topographical maps that show aerial photos of houses on a county street. Last week, the county school system also revamped its home page, www.fcps.edu.
Suzanne J. Peck, the information technology chief for the District, said local governments in the area "are all doing the same thing" by bringing technology to their residents. "But Fairfax does design, content and navigation better than anyone else," she said. The county's information technology program has won numerous awards from associations that monitor technology and public administration.
In a county dominated by the technology industry, where nearly nine in 10 residents own a computer, the push toward electronic government is an obvious goal. Members of the county's information technology staff say they have also worked hard to give people without a desktop or laptop access to electronic services through an interactive, touch-tone phone system that also can provide a real person at the caller's request.
"We are trying to balance how we deliver the services," said David Molchany, the county's chief information officer.
"E-government" was launched out of necessity in 1996, when the Board of Supervisors closed its satellite government offices to save money in a tight budget year. Technology officials experimented with pilot Web sites, kiosks and touch-tone phone systems.
Seven years later, the county Web site gets 625,000 visits a month, and 257,000 people have used the kiosks. The phone lines have received 819,000 calls. Requests for court data, library books and tax payments are users' most popular transactions.
Still, the numbers represent a fraction of county business: 5 percent of the county's real estate and personal property taxes were paid electronically last year, for example. But 61 percent of the books library patrons put on hold so far this year were reserved online, up from a total of 47 percent last year, county statistics show.
In the 13 months the Park Authority has offered online registration for summer camp, park tours and classes, 18,655 registrations have rolled in through cyberspace, bringing in $1.2 million in revenue, officials said.
Colleen Blessing said she has bookmarked the schools' Web site, which became a constant companion this winter as snowstorms blanketed the county and as 10 snow days for her eighth- and tenth-grade daughters forced her and her husband to adjust their work schedules.
"Every day it snowed, I went to the Web site for cancellations," said Blessing of Annandale, who tests Web sites for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Lately she has been watching the schools' site for news of a decision by the School Board on how many days her daughters will have to make up at the end of the year. A week ago, the board decided to make April 7, originally scheduled as a teacher workday, a regular school day and to extend the school day by a half-hour from April 21 to May 16. The information was posted on the Web site along with a revised school-year calendar.
Ron Gird receives a weekly newsletter on e-mail from Woodson High School, which lets him know about basketball games, after-school clubs and other activities going on as his daughter, Michelle, finishes her senior year. In January, he looked up the assessment on his home in George Mason Forest to see whether the county had posted this year's values. The assessment increases came out Feb. 24, the same day County Executive Anthony H. Griffin proposed a new county budget.
In addition to convenience, the Web gives Gird sensitive information that is public but that sought directly may represent a social taboo -- the assessments on his neighbors' homes. (Gird could snoop on other Fairfax residents as well. Colin Powell of McLean, for instance, lives in a home assessed at $1.4 million this year, the same as last year.) Assessment information is available at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/living/taxes/default.htm.
"You can't really walk up to your neighbor and say, 'Can I see your assessment?' but you can go on the Internet," said Gird, who manages customer outreach efforts for the National Weather Service.
The county is devoting $1.1 million of its $54 million budget for information technology to the e-government program this year, mostly to cover 13 computer experts who work full time at improving the flow of information from the county to constituents and back. Budget cuts have forced the department to trim its spending request for the coming fiscal year to $800,000, a reduction that could slow new projects, Molchany said.
He calls e-government a wise investment that ultimately will save the county government in labor costs, although he said the savings are hard to quantify.
With technology improving constantly, Molchany and his staff are working to keep up. The focus this year is improving the county's system for online payments, adding debit cards as a payment method and allowing parents to pay for after-school child care electronically. A new vendor has been hired to process payments for parking tickets, and the county wants to broaden the system to allow builders to apply for permits online.
Next, the county hopes to enter the age of wireless communication by displaying text messages on cell phones, beepers or hand-held computers alerting residents to traffic tie-ups, a plane crash in the area, a derailed train, fire or other emergency. Molchany calls this multiple delivery of messages "just-in-time" government, which he said "is the power of e-government."
If all goes as planned, one day in the future someone tuned to the county's cable Channel 16 might even watch a public service announcement from the Park Authority and sign up for a class.
With the remote.