BTOP Projects at Work: Making the Most of Government Partnerships

Providing services in underserved and remote areas can be difficult without support systems. In such communities, leveraged resources and partnerships can range from helpful to downright critical. Maine’s state library and a non-profit organization in Washington are using NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant funding and partnerships with government agencies to attain their goals despite challenging circumstances.

Partnering to Promote Empowerment

The Maine State Library (MSL) facilitates access to and delivery of library services and collection resources for the State of Maine. In July of 2010, the MSL received a $1.36 million BTOP grant for its Maine Public Library Information Commons Project. 

One of the MSL’s partners is HelpMELaw, which provides legal information for low-income residents of the State of Maine. According to Janet McKenney, Acting Director of Library Development, Learning and Technology Services, partnering with HelpMELaw helps the library reach out to its community and targets populations of interest – specifically, low-income, elderly, and unemployed residents.

The goals of this partnership with HelpMELaw are twofold. First, more than 80 librarians have been trained on the various resources offered by the HelpMELaw website, which will allow staff to help patrons. Second, staff from the Access to Justice program will invite lawyers into the public libraries to give patrons opportunities to discuss legal matters and options.

As part of the BTOP grant, MSL also partners with Maine’s Department of Labor (DOL) on two beta projects in a couple of the state’s libraries. One of these projects involves a website for people seeking employment. MSL staff both helped the DOL improve the accessibility of the website and trained librarians on how to use it. The DOL has also developed a “Job Accelerator,” a web-based tool that allows job seekers to store their resumés, distribute cover letters to prospective employers, and track the progress of their job search. Users will access the tool through their state library card number, which will allow the MSL to track usage and courses taken by patrons.

The MSL also works with the Maine Information Network (InforME), a portal that provides and enhances access to public information and eGovernment services. Librarians will be trained on how to use resources offered by the website so they can, in turn, assist the patrons with such tasks as filing taxes online and applying for hunting licenses.

Building Bridges to Sustainability

The EdLab Group’s Community Connect Network (CCN) has also discovered the benefits of government partnerships. The CCN project was awarded a $4.1 million dollar BTOP grant from the NTIA in September of 2010. According to its website, the broad goal of the CCN project is to “bring together libraries, community non-profits, government, and the justice system to reach vulnerable residents in rural and urban communities in seven counties. The project links rural and urban resources together to serve unemployed, low-income, disabled, immigrants and youth by partnering with five library sites and justice organizations, and community technology centers in low income housing projects, senior centers, youth centers and community centers in the State.”

One of the CCN’s major tasks will be capacity building training to help public computing centers meet the needs of vulnerable populations. To support this work, the CCN reaches out to governmental agencies such as the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in an effort to enhance these agencies’ awareness of how public computing centers can help them meet their goals. For example, various Internet Service Providers (ISPs), funders, and DSHS collaborated on a project called The Washington Connection, a portal for residents of Washington State that helps people determine the benefits and programs they qualify for through the DSHS. As Executive Director Karen Manuel explained,

To some, that [project] might sound really simple. But it’s actually revolutionary to have everything in one place. So we are trying to position networks such as libraries and other public computing centers as a place where [we] can train those staff to know how to use the Washington Connection portal. They can then support users in being able to access content from DSHS.”

Ms. Manuel shared this project as just one example of the kind of bridges they have built to sustain their work; the CCN also works with tribal government to meet the needs of its community with enhanced connectivity and training.

Partnerships among agencies that work with the government can also be critical. Ms. Manuel shared that because the paperwork and logistics involved with federal projects can be complex, “There is definitely a role for larger organizations to support smaller organizations in this effort.”

Working Together

Providing services can be challenging enough in a struggling economy, and these difficulties are only more challenging for organizations in underserved and remote areas. But the partnerships forged by such organizations as the CCN and the MSL are proof that collaboration and teamwork can be a tremendous benefit.