Charleston County Courthouse: Public Information Access
When you work for the public, providing quick access to information is a chief commitment. Perhaps no municipality has embraced that concept more than Charleston County, which has become the first municipality in the nation to provide the public with Web access to court documents. From the most basic civil complaints to the most complicated criminal cases, details on all of the cases are available by logging onto www3.charlestoncounty.org, making it quicker and easier for paralegals, bonding agencies, lawyers and members of the public to get the information they need.
MIS Director Bobby Beard managed the conversion from the county's inefficient 3270 Remote Public Access System (RPAS) screens. Charleston County began the process last fall at the request of the clerk of court, Julie Armstrong, who believed that the growth in Internet technology offered a tremendous opportunity to better serve its constituents. Just two months after selecting Screensurfer, a general purpose Web gateway that transforms 3270 screens into savvy Web applications, Charleston County is averaging 3,000 screen views a day.
Before Screensurfer, those who needed an occasional document drove to one of two county courthouses and used the computers there. It was no simple task. Through an unappealing user interface, the RPAS system presented countless codes and menu options and unappealing user interface were just a couple of the problems. Users could also remotely access the system, an expensive prospect. In addition to needing a computer, users had to pay a $125 basic subscription and set-up fee, a $25 monthly fee, and a 25-cent-per-minute fee when logged on. Also, remote access users faced the same problems as those who went in to the office to obtain documents. "The 3270 green screens were monsters," Beard says. "Users complained about it constantly."
Charleston County began its search for a solution to take them to the Internet age in early 1998. They began with a list of 12 vendors and narrowed it down to three. Of those, Charleston County considered solutions offered by IBM and UniKix Technologies, in addition to Screensurfer. Among the reasons they went with Screensurfer, Beard says, was the fact that it is so user friendly. Bryan Spooner, one of Charleston County's Webmasters that had a hand in the decision-making process, noted that both the IBM and UniKix products are Java applets that offered some limitations. They chose Screensurfer because of the flexibility it offered, providing the development team a great deal of control. They bought the application on October 1 and launched the system just eight short weeks later, on December 1.
With the implementation of the new Internet application, Charleston County has not gotten rid of the 3270 screens, Beard says. It's just that now, users don't see them anymore. As Beard explains, the 3270 screen is behind what the users see. Screensurfer collects the information and presents it to users in an easy-to-digest point and click Web interface.
Return on Investment (ROI) has not been the county's main concern, although Beard says he has undoubtedly recouped the $25,000 it has cost to buy the software and implement the solution. Because information can now be accessed from any computer with Web access, workstation support costs have decreased dramatically. In addition, Armstrong, the clerk of court, no longer has to assist users in using the 3270 terminals, nor does she have to repeatedly answer questions, as the FAQs are available on line. Not to mention the fact that no one needs to buy special software to get the information, or pay user fees - all they need is a computer with Web access.
Beard believes Charleston County has achieved an even greater good. As he puts it, his goal is to serve the public - and this solution has allowed him to do that easier and quicker than ever before. The public feedback proves it. Since launching the program, emails and letters have come pouring in, Beard says, all exulting the fact that the Internet application is so much easier to use. "Our mission is to provide access to information," Beard says. "Screensurfer is the key."
With this project under their belt, Charleston County is using Screensurfer to go even further in meeting its mission. It is in the process now of making business license data available via the Web within the next few months and, once that is complete, will move on to making tax-related information in the auditor's and treasurer's offices available. "This will continue to allow us to make it quick and painless for the public to obtain public information and documents, a process often fraught with difficulty," Beard says. "Not in Charleston County. Not anymore."