The Pennsylvania Open for Business Interactive Registration Portal
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IT Policy Consultant, Pennsylvania Governor’s Office of Administration
How to transform a time-consuming, paper-based, business registration process into one that positions the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as one of the easiest places in the world to start, sustain, and expand a business through the use of web-based resources?
With this and a host of other questions confronting them, representatives from Pennsylvania’s three main business regulatory and registration agencies—the Departments of Labor and Industry, Revenue and State—were directed to identify opportunities for streamlining business processes and moving them online. The goals were to reduce operational costs and provide customers with 24/7, round-the-clock access to business registration services.
There were many challenges: Multiple paper forms, required by these separate state agencies, were both confusing and cumbersome from a customer standpoint. Common intradepartmental data-gathering requirements made additional work for taxpayers, many of whom would take a day away from their business affairs to travel—in some cases, 2 to 4 hours—to Harrisburg to visit each of the agencies involved in order to complete the registration process. In addition, snail-mail delivery and ancillary issues, such as illegible handwriting and the administrative overhead associated with paper documents, offered an opportunity for drastic improvement in both process and delivery.
Program and technical staff from these agencies assembled a project team to identify existing work processes and to map new ones.
On September 10, 2001, Pennsylvania Open for Business (PAO4B), Pennsylvania’s Business-to-Government (B2G) portal, went live. Using web-based technology, the initiative presents a single face of government to our “customers”—the Commonwealth’s residents and prospective business clients outside the state. The thrust of the initiative is to facilitate “business to government” interaction.
An online “interactive” interview feature enables business owners to register their enterprises 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year via an intuitive, questionand- answer process, and pay necessary Commonwealth fees online with a major credit card—with no user fees assessed.
The site has registered users from all 67 Pennsylvania counties and all 50 states, with many concentrated around high-tech regions like Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Boston. In addition, the site is visited regularly by web users on six inhabited continents (excluding only Antarctica).
On February 3, 2003, Pennsylvania Open for Business launched an enhanced version of its registration tool, known as Online Business Registration Interview (OBRI). The interview provides the user with an electronic guide through a customized business registration experience. Each step of the process is unique, based on individual responses to questions. At the completion of the interview, the enterprise is registered to do business in the Commonwealth through its departments of State, Revenue, and Labor & Industry—the core Commonwealth agencies with statutory or regulatory responsibilities for business registration in Pennsylvania.
The three participating agencies electronically receive only the information each one needs to satisfy its business requirements. Prior to this service, business owners were required to complete multiple paper forms, containing duplicative information.
Open for Business Features
- Universal Login (U-Login) gives the user single signon, easy access to all participating websites under the PAPowerPort, the Commonwealth’s web portal.
- Electronic signature (e-signature) satisfies signature requirements for electronic transactions.
- Electronic Payment (e-Pay) is available to pay select registration fees online with a major credit card—at no cost to the user.
- A Search option enables the user to check instantly the availability of a business name.
- The site offers unemployment compensation tax registration and collects workers’ compensation insurance information for compliance purposes. Workers’ compensation information insurance can be accessed in the “Resources” section of the site.
- Online briefcase makes it easy to store interviews in process and forms.
- The user can print out completed forms at the end of the online interview for personal records.
Registration for the following taxes and services are processed electronically:
- Employer Withholding Tax
- State and Local Sales, Use and Hotel Occupancy Tax
- Unemployment Compensation Tax
- Use Tax
- Promoter License
- Transient Vendor Certificate
- Fictitious Name
- PA Registration for Corporate Partnership
Those completing the online interview electronically register their businesses, eliminating the need to file a number of paper forms:
- Articles of Incorporation—Profit and Nonprofit Corporation
- Application for Certificate of Authority
- Application for Registration of Fictitious Name
- Certificate of Organization
- Statement of Registration
- Limited Liability Companies
- Certificate of Limited Partnership
- Certificate of Insurance
A Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section and links to state agencies and business resources provide information to site visitors. No other state or federal site provides a similar service for its citizens.
Summary of Usage Data
With 780,000 unique visitor website hits, more than 7,500 business registrations were logged in the first full year of operations through the first iteration of the wizard-based online interview tool.
With over 43 million total hits in the first year alone, utilization indicators for the site demonstrate a significant amount of traffic for both transactions and research usage. The statistics show a shift in usage from off-normal hours to working hours. The numbers demonstrate that more business professional users are accessing the site during the day.
According to statistics gathered from the Department of Revenue, the frequency of online business registrations to the agency has increased by more than 100 percent since the introduction of the new Online Business Registration Interview.
The Online Business Registration Interview application was developed using the Microsoft.net framework. The back-end data parsing system is built on the Microsoft Biztalk environment, making use of the hub and spoke architecture—dedicating an individual agency spoke to each agency to distribute records accordingly
The Commonwealth Technology Center E-Government Server Farm provides a stable, scaleable Internet platform. Microsoft Host Integration Server is leveraged to provide easy access to information currently residing on legacy AS/400 and mainframe systems.
Data are transmitted and deployed through Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server. Internet Information Server v5.0 serves as the web server platform. SQL Server 2000 is the database engine for the project.
The final new addition for this project is Microsoft Application Center Server 2000, which is being used throughout the server farm. This allows for easy deployment and management of clusters of servers and facilitates extremely high availability for web components, as well as increased performance capabilities. (Guaranteed availability of all servers and operating system platform at least 99.9 percent of the time.)
Hardware includes Dell PowerEdge 2550s with dual 933MHz Pentium III processors with 2GB of memory, for web pieces and smaller database components. Larger 8 processor servers are being leveraged (Dell PowerEdge 8450s) with 8 – 700MHz Pentium III Xeon processors with 8GB of RAM for the central Biztalk High Availability Clusters.
Use of these components and technology is creating a virtual, paperless registration process for new businesses. For more information about e-government and relevant technologies, see the links provided in Appendix A – Resource Information.
Costs and Benefits
The Pennsylvania Open for Business portal is funded entirely by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Total expenditures of just under $2 million include development work for the new Online Business Registration Interview, coding, hardware, and consulting. Ongoing maintenance, which also allows for some functional upgrades during the following fiscal year, will amount to approximately $650,000 in development costs.
Accessibility to Services/Information. As a business development tool, Pennsylvania Open for Business is serving the needs of the state’s business sector by providing easy, immediate online access to programs and services offered by state government. Instantaneous access to the important forms necessary to start and grow a business in Pennsylvania facilitates economic development and job creation opportunities in communities.
Improved Efficiency/Government Response Time. No longer is there response lag time of up to several weeks to register an enterprise with the Commonwealth or delay in obtaining business registration related information from an agency. For example, when a registration is completed, an email is immediately sent to confirm the registration. In addition, if a tax license is part of the registration, within one day, an email is sent with the license number in advance of the actual paper certificate, to facilitate immediate business operation.
Process Redesign. An underpinning of Open for Business and all of the Commonwealth’s e-government initiatives is harnessing technology to transform government operations and make them more customer-oriented and efficient. These goals have prompted each participating agency’s technical, program, and administrative staff to analyze and map the agency’s business processes and to network with their counterparts in sister agencies.
This process has required concerted efforts to “de-fragment” an existing regulatory and programmatic infrastructure in which separate state agencies maintain separate information systems.
In effect, Pennsylvania Open for Business is allowing businesses, which must strive to be operationally efficient and comply with government information mandates, to “get down to the business of doing business.” These two requirements often conflict, given the number of agencies that regulate business activities. PAO4B streamlines public services to help businesses respond faster to marketplace opportunities. These changes will lower the costs of doing business in Pennsylvania and increase the bottom line for Commonwealth businesses.
Efforts have been made to avoid or overcome obstacles that can often arise when revamping public services. Throughout the ongoing development of the site, focus groups and planning sessions are held with business people and associations to help define the future direction of the site. An online survey is being developed that will collect customer feedback on the usefulness of the site information and what would be desired in future versions. This ongoing feedback provides potential for additional enhancements and features to become available to business customers in the Commonwealth.
Broad support within state government has also been developed. The Governor’s Office of Administration/Office for Information Technology provided the impetus, funding mechanism, and organizational structure to make the project feasible. Project development is overseen by the Pennsylvania Open for Business Steering Committee, comprised of key executive and technical level representatives from each of the participating agencies.
The departments of Community and Economic Development and the Governor’s Policy Office maintain representation on the steering committee. As additional departments join the initiative in the future, they will also provide representation to the steering committee.
Essential to this or any other e-government application involving a transaction is an underlying need to assure trust, privacy, and security, particularly as it relates to sharing of sensitive business information.
The portal is housed within the Commonwealth Technology Center E-Government Server Farm, which provides a stable, scaleable Internet platform, coupled with website management services to provide a high-performance and secure hosting environment. The security of sensitive/confidential data is ensured with 128-bit encryption technology.
Microsoft BizTalk Server 2000 facilitates the flow of data among the participating agencies, which receive only the information they require for business needs, as well as back and forth to the Server Farm.
Potential for Replication
The site is replicable in other jurisdictions. The Business Portal uses commercial hardware and software that will require customization to specific programs.
The PA Open for Business Project Team has provided technical assistance to other states and entities that have expressed interest in establishing a similar service. The project team would be happy to provide best practices and lessons learned through the development process.
While Pennsylvania can provide technical assistance and guidance, it will be necessary for parties interested in undertaking such an initiative to examine thoroughly and formalize internal business and logic flow processes as one of the first major steps.
Appendix A – Resource Information
The site has attracted attention from various sectors. The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry has recognized the website with its Delta Award in appreciation of its tremendous service to the state’s businesses. In a 22-page report, the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices recognized PA Open for Business in 2000 for providing improved service to businesses by making more state services available online.
- Shane Harris, eGovernment Special Report: G2B “Getting down to business,” Governing Magazine, September 2002. Available online at http://www.governing.com/archive/2002/sep/ eg2b.txt.
- Center for Digital Government, 2002 Best of Breed Programs, Part II, “Digital Democracy, E-Commerce/Business Regulation, Management and Administration.” Available online at http://www.oit.state.pa.us/pao4binfo/lib/pao4binfo/Digital_Govt_Best_Breed.pdf.
- Jon Udell, “BizTalk’s different path to Web services,” Computer World, March 25, 2002. Available online at http://www.oit.state.pa.us/pao4binfo/lib/pao4binfo/Computerworld.htm.
- Dell Case Study Release, “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Opens for Business Online with a Clustered Dell Server/SAN Platform on Microsoft Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and BizTalk 2000.” Available online at http://www.oit.state.pa.us/pao4binfo/lib/pao4binfo/ DELLCASESTUDYRELEASE.pdf.
- “Dell Servers Help Make Pennsylvania Business-Friendly,” GovTech Magazine, June 2002. Available online at http://www.oit.state.pa.us/pao4binfo/lib/pao4binfo/Govttech_dell_ advitorial.htm.
- Microsoft Case Study, “BizTalk Portal Helps Businesses Slash the Time and Work of Registration in PA,” March 2002. Available online at http://www.oit.state.pa.us/pao4binfo/lib/pao4binfo/ PA_O4B_case_study_final.doc.
- Robert L. Scheier, “What, no lines? Egovernment pays off,” Executive Circle. Available online at http://www.oit.state.pa.us/pao4binfo/lib/pao4binfo/MSFT_Exe_Circle_Magazine_Article.doc.
- Dibya Sarkar, “Pa. eases business registry,” Federal Computer Week, April 19, 2002. Available online at http://www.oit.state.pa.us/pao4binfo/lib/pao4binfo/Pa__eases_business_registry.htm.
- Microsoft News Release, “Microsoft BizTalk Server Helps Pennsylvania Quickly Build Pioneering e-Government Portal,” March 6, 2002. Available online at http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/ press/2002/Mar02/03-06PAPortalPR.asp.
About the Author
Robert Bunty is an IT Policy Consultant for the Office for Information Technology in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Office of Administration. Among his duties are conducting information and inter-agency outreach for Pennsylvania’s e-government programs and services. Mr. Bunty has 16 years of experience with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, having served in communications-related capacities within the Departments of Agriculture, State, and Community Affairs. He has a background in newspaper reporting, website development, local government administration, and non-profit sector communications.
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