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At 20, Arkansas E-Government Draws Cheers

6 min read

Back in 1997, when Facebook was years in the future and tweets were sounds made by birds, Bob Sanders and a team of six digital pioneers introduced e-government to Arkansas.

A few Arkansans with internet connections — dial-up, at that time — slowly began doing business with state and local governments online.

Now the public-private partnership that Sanders helped create, Information Network of Arkansas, is celebrating its 20th anniversary and is still setting records. It logged 2.2 million transactions and processed $377 million in digital payments in 2016, handling everything from car tag renewals to criminal background checks to applications for government jobs.

Those transactions, both financial and nonfinancial, saved the state an estimated $19 million and spared citizens countless hours of waiting in line. The Arkansas.gov portal run by INA has also made the state a national leader in digital government, serving more than 240 government entities.

Arkansans can pay their property taxes online in 54 counties, for example, while businesses statewide pay franchise taxes, register corporations and gain access to the state procurement system digitally, all without paper and increasingly on mobile phones.

“We have over 800 websites and services that we maintain in partnership with the state, and all of it is self-funded,” said Sanders, the general manager at INA. User fees of a few dollars per transaction pay for the services and provide a profit to INA’s private partner company, Arkansas Information Consortium. AIC is a wholly owned subsidiary of NIC Inc. of Kansas, a publicly traded company operating in 29 states.

“This is a true zero-dollar contract to the state,” Sanders said. “We are supported by fees that users pay, and online services give citizens back their most valuable asset, time.”

A business handling franchise taxes online, for example, will pay about $3 to use an electronic check, or about 3 percent of its tax total if using a credit card. “For tag renewals, the state absorbs the fees so that citizens don’t pay extra.”

INA has grown from seven people to about 40, working in offices on West Capitol Avenue in Little Rock. Arkansas Information Consortium has received payments of just over $3 million from state entities this fiscal year, according to Transparency.Arkansas.gov.

INA’s parent company, NIC, reported 2016 revenue of $318 million, up 9 percent from the year before. Its operating profit was $78 million, up 11 percent.

Convenience, Efficiency

Mark Martin, the Arkansas secretary of state and chairman of the INA governing board, said many Arkansans happily “pay the fees because of the convenience of it,” but he said nondigital methods still exist.

“We have to remain sensitive to people who haven’t moved to a web-based lifestyle,” he said.

Martin said e-government helped his office resolve a huge backlog of corporation filings and franchise tax collections. “The filings and franchise payments were stacked up a couple of months when I came into office [in January 2011], and we were able to eliminate that. We could do things efficiently.”

Accountant Sherry Chesser of Thomas & Thomas LP in Little Rock said the online form for paying franchise taxes is clear and simple, and that many businesses that once asked outside accountants to handle payments now do it themselves.

“I encourage everyone to do it online,” Chesser told Arkansas Business. “Years ago, accountants pretty much did it, but businesses can handle it now.”

Sanders also emphasized cost advantages, citing a 2013 Utah study that found savings of about $13 for government “any time somebody does something online versus on paper.”

Businesses also save, but the benefits go deeper, said David Beck, vice president and marketing director of First Arkansas Insurance in Pine Bluff.

“Online services take a lot of the guesswork out of doing business with government,” Beck said. “Paying franchise taxes online, for example, is easier because the system walks you through the steps and calculates how much you owe. The paper form requires you to understand all that yourself.”

Beck also said Arkansas offers online professional licensing for dozens of professions, including nursing, teaching and insurance. “Most licensing boards put all of their information is online now, including rules, regulations and notifications of public meetings.”

Making Information Public

E-government goes beyond helping citizens fill out forms or renew their vehicle tags through ARstar.com, probably the most familiar service, Sanders said. It is also a channel for getting information to the public.

Transparency.Arkansas.gov provides citizens access to thousands of documents on state transactions, government salaries and much more. Created by the state Legislature in 2011, the site offers searchable details on revenue, expenditures and government contracts.

In 2010, the Office of State Procurement introduced an electronic workflow process that it estimated cut paper use by 117,000 pages a year and reduced processing time for government contracts, which average more than 2,000 a year, from three months to six weeks.

The new system allows businesses and agencies to access contract information online, then download documents and spreadsheets.

E-government advances have also eased life for municipal and county workers, who can research ordinances or procedures used in other localities on databases available 24 hours a day. Scanning and emailing documents saves on courier services and long-distance charges for faxing.

Martin says he has also been able to shift his office’s focus from “gotcha” enforcement to helping businesses comply with state regulations. “I have a quip about that, that we’re assisting in compliance rather than persisting in enforcement,” he said.

“Ultimately we’re making Arkansas a much more business-friendly state. Our businesses aren’t criminals. When they’re out of compliance it’s not because they’re trying to get away with things. It’s because the burden has been difficult.”

Martin said he uses the state’s mobile application, Gov2Go, to get alerts when property tax payments come due. “It’s a great help when an owner has multiple properties. Again, this helps Arkansans comply with what they need to do.”

‘Best in Nation’

Innovations like Gov2Go have helped Arkansas build a reputation for e-government. INA won a 2017 Digital Edge 50 award for the app, which Martin describes as the nation’s first personal digital government assistant. Other winners for technical innovation this year included Accenture, FedEx, Cisco Systems, Monsanto, Pfizer and Verizon.

“The state has been in the top 10 in the Center for Digital Government’s Best of the Web competition every year for the last decade,” Martin said, citing 54 national awards and “best in nation” rankings in 2011 and 2015. “It surprises a lot of people that Arkansas does that well in digital government, but we’re really seen as a national leader.”

Arkansans expressed privacy concerns in the early years and were sometimes reluctant to provide their credit card information, but Martin said those worries have eased.

“There’s a lot of diligence and work that goes into maintaining people’s privacy,” he said. “I think people are exposing a lot more of their privacy on Facebook every day.”

Martin envisions a day when digital government will offer Arkansans “more of a one stop” where businesses “don’t have to get with 50 jillion agencies” to get information and conduct transactions.

“They’d be able to do the work from a website in only one place, and get their business substantially completed,” he said. “The vision is a place where we’re not filling out dozens of paperwork forms over and over, and we can coordinate from one agency to another and begin to unify this into a single experience. We want to be consistent, reliably the same, and to make sure what we’re doing is making things easier, not more difficult, for businesses.”

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