On tap, licenses as close as nearest keyboard


December 19, 2004|By CANDUS THOMSON

Before the year is out, you won't have to get dressed to buy a fishing or hunting license.

Woohoo! It's a Homer Simpson dream come true.

After seven months of concentrated effort, the electronic elves at the state's Department of Natural Resources have figured out how to put a license into your hands through the magic of the Internet.

Gearing up will be a two-step process. Within days, telephone license sales will begin, with agents processing information on the same form you will be using. After they vanquish all the little gremlins, do-it-yourself, online sales will begin.

With that leap into the 21st century, Maryland will be the 45th state to have e-licenses.

This project wasn't as simple as going to Circuit City and buying the "DNR in a Box" software package. Nor could Maryland officials simply point to another state's system and say, "We'll take one of those."

Different regulations, different species of fish and game and different kinds of fishing and hunting licenses prevent it from being a one-size-fits-all deal. Nashville-based Automated Licensing Systems Inc., which developed licensing sites for eight other states, was hired for the complicated task.

"You hope that when you begin working with a vendor that they'll be able to customize their software to meet your needs," says Louise Reiner, DNR's point woman on the project. "It turns out it's almost never that way."

Add to the mix that these issues had to be worked out against an aggressive end-of-year deadline set by DNR Secretary Ron Franks.

"If you have a year to design specifications, you can think of all the things you need to have. But when you have this kind of timetable, you can't think of everything, even though everybody is racking their brains," Reiner says.

While Reiner worked with the vendor, Gene Deems, DNR's on-line manager, worked with the public, surveying users of the agency's Web site. As you'll see, comments helped shape the finished product.

Deems received more than 1,200 responses: 83 percent said they would like to purchase a license online and print it at home; 11 percent preferred buying the license online and having a copy mailed to them, and 6 percent said they would continue buying their licenses at sporting goods stores or DNR service centers.

When the question switched to boat registrations, 79 percent of respondents said they would definitely renew online, with the decal mailed to them; 17 percent said they might use the service and 4 percent said they would not use it.

Everything comes at a price, in this case a service fee to cover expenses and maintain the system.

Fifty-three percent of respondents said they'd pay a fee or that it would not be a factor in buying a license online.

Eighty-four percent said a fee of $2 or $3 would be reasonable.

Barring any last-minute jiggering, you will go to DNR's Web site, create a customer record and then go license shopping. The state will accept Mastercard, Visa, Discover or ElectronicCheck.

Users who opt to print a fishing license at home will be charged a $1 service fee, plus 2.5 percent of the sale total. If you choose to have your license mailed to you, the fee will be $2, plus the 2.5 percent.

The system will be slightly different for hunting licenses. Because some of those, such as the ones for deer, require tags or stamps, Automated Licensing Systems Inc. will mail the materials to you. However, at the time of the purchase, the user will be issued a temporary authorization number that works in lieu of a paper license.

IT planners also had to take into account the computer savvy of customers and their hardware.

"What we're giving is quality across all levels, whether you have an older computer or the latest and fastest one," says Deems.

Although Maryland is one of the most plugged-in states, officials expect sales to get off to a slow start, in part because the next three months aren't much to shout about on the outdoors front.

"It would be nice to have as much early traffic as possible so that we can troubleshoot problems," Reiner says. "I haven't bought a fishing license in years, but I'm going to buy one this time."

All of this fits nicely into a push by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to create a national database that will help member departments become "more businesslike," says Len Singel.

Singel, coordinator of the Automated Wildlife Data Systems for the international organization, hopes to gather information from all e-license states and Canadian provinces that will help budgeting and planning.

"For many states, it's a big cultural change from a paper-based system," Singel says. "I'm not asking them to review information quarterly, I'm asking them to look at it monthly so that they can gauge trends and monitor revenue flow."

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