February 20, 2001
by Phil Forbus
E-commerce has gotten a lot of media attention recently, but "e-government" may hold the promise of even greater impact on the society than electronic shopping malls. Many taxpayers will use the Internet to obtain tax forms and information, and to file their returns this tax season. That is just a small taste of the myriad of ways that citizens and government at all levels will be able to interact electronically within a few years. To some people, e-government holds the promise of bringing about both true citizen participation and government accountability that are the hallmarks of democracy. To others, wiring citizens to the various levels of government represents another potentially intrusive threat to privacy.
E-government is the shorthand term for providing internet-based access to government information and services, and an electronic forum for citizen input to government agencies. Broadly speaking, e-government takes two forms, one of which is relatively straightforward - the other, anything but. The first is simply providing information to the public via government agencies' web sites. This is the easy part, and many government agencies at all levels have developed web sites that allow virtually costless internet access to information on government contracts, employment opportunities, regulations, legislation, tax information and forms, scheduled meetings and agendas of local councils and commissions, budgets, bond issues, and many other types of information. This one-way dissemination of information is useful, and if the web sites are designed well, can save citizens a lot of time and money, but this type of one-way communication is just the beginning.
The second, and much more difficult, form of e-government is providing web-based interactive links that allow citizens to not only retrieve information, but also to ask for and receive government services directly via electronic means. The motto (mantra) of this type of e-government is "on-line, not in line." The prospects of being able to renew your driver's license, obtain the forms for a small-business loan, get a fishing permit, ask your city or county officials questions about local issues, ask the IRS questions about tax law (and get reasonable reliable answers), change the title to a car, all from your own home, at a time that is convenient for you, are certainly appealing. Providing these and many other services on-line rather than requiring citizens to come to government offices, however, requires that government at all levels re-think how services are delivered. The traditional paradigm is to arrange services according to the agency that provides them. You go to the office of the license commissioner for some services, to the offices of the probate court for some, to the registrar of records for some, to the mayor's office for others. One of the most frustrating parts of dealing with government agencies can be simply determining which office or agency to go to. Even if they are located in the same building, it can be a headache going from one to the other, and often they are located miles apart. The new paradigm of e-government is to arrange services according to the citizen's needs rather than the agency providing the service. Geography becomes irrelevant, and on-line access gives governments at all levels a way to offer the whole range of services through a single access point.
At the federal level, one example of this is firstgov.com. This site is designed to be a "gateway" site for by citizens seeking information or other services from the federal government, regardless of the agency or department providing the service. The site has links to virtually all departments, arranged by type of service offered, not by agency or department. The City of Mobile's web-site (cityofmobile.org) has similar links to various department of city government. The goal of these entry-point sites is one-stop or at least one-entry shopping for a wide variety of services. If all the agencies and offices concerned with a given function can be connected electronically so that they share the same information, then a business needing multiple environmental permits, for example, could simply fill out one web-based form and the information could automatically be forwarded to all the necessary local, state, and federal environmental regulatory agencies, with enormous savings in time and money as well as frustration and citizen alienation from government.
Sites such as firstgov.com notwithstanding, the federal government has generally lagged behind state and local governments in recognizing the advantages, both to government and to citizens, of the Internet as a way to deliver services. From governments' perspective, one of the incentives for developing on-line delivery is lower cost. While it is difficult to cost government services regardless of how they are delivered, it is clear that on-line is much cheaper than in-line, for government agencies as well as for the public. Studies by IBM's Institute for Electronic Government indicate that cost savings from moving government services online are in the range of seventy percent, compared with providing the same services in person. An industry that has made fairly reliable estimates of cost savings through electronic service delivery is banking. One study found that a single transaction that costs banks an average of $1.07 to provide face-to-face at a full-service bank can be provided at a cost of 54 cents by telephone, 27 cents using an ATM, or about one cent using the internet. Government savings may not be quite as dramatic, but clearly e-government offers tremendous potential for reducing cost of government.
Surveys and polls indicate that the public is willing to accept e-government, but has concerns about privacy and security - which are also the major concerns that the public has about e-commerce. Governments are working, just as private businesses are, to improve security and to find ways to safeguard privacy in the internet environment, but there are still certain risks, as there are with every venture. New technologies always create unforeseen questions much faster than answers can be found, and the main question that divides the public into techno-skeptics and enthusiasts is whether these issues will be resolved in ways that are not threatening to the core values of the society. It is a question as old as history.
Another troubling issue surrounding e-government is the so-called "digital divide" - the gap between those (generally younger, more educated, with higher income) who have access to and are comfortable using the internet, and those (generally older, less educated, with lower income) who either do not have access to the internet, or are not comfortable using it. There is no simple answer to this issue other than providing more access at schools and public venues such as libraries, and making the Internet more user-friendly to all users. As governments proceed into the digital world, however, universal participation must be one of the goals of the project.
The degree to which state and local governments have implemented e-government programs varies, but a number of them are moving energetically forward. The state of Maryland, for example, set a goal of having eighty percent of its services online by 2004, and California's secretary of state has proposed a strategy to bring the state government ninety percent online by 2002. The Government Paperwork Elimination Act sets a goal of October 2003 for federal government agencies to enable citizens to interact with the government electronically, but qualifies that goal by including the words "whenever possible." During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised to appoint a federal Chief Information Officer to oversee the e-government project, but it remains to be seen if his administration will actively push the project. The first group of appointments to senior positions in the Bush administration does not augur well for e-government's being very high on the agenda.
The City of Mobile is one of the leading cities in the country in its commitment to e-government and its efforts to create a citizen-centered internet environment for providing government services. In the next issue, we look at the City of Mobile's e-government program and how both the city government and the city's citizens benefit from it.
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