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March 27, 2001

E-Government: A Word of Caution

by Konrad Kressley

The last issue of The Harbinger focused on Mobile's efforts to put local government on line. From the larger perspective, this is part of two major trends: First, advances in electronic communications spell the demise of many traditional technologies, while eliminating the human interface in a variety of transactions. Even though many of us still savor handling paper and metal currency, the cashless society is just over the horizon. Goodbye, tank tellers and sales clerks. If you have recently called customer assistance for help with your new computer or other mechanical gadget, you have discovered that telephone operators are a nearly extinct species. Instead of answers to your questions, you receive endless menus of recorded messages. They will tell you that this improves service to the public; in reality, automation offers substantial savings in labor cost to the organization, but can be frustrating to the consumer.

The second trend is what former Vice President Al Gore described as "reinventing government." The central idea was to make government more economical and efficient by adopting standards and techniques from the business sector. In practice, this philosophy can be linked to the economic boom of the 1990s, credited largely to information technologies that helped automate production while eliminating layers of middle management. Besides flattening the corporate pyramids, electronic advances also facilitated direct B-to-B (Business to Business) transactions, making many wholesalers and other middlemen obsolete.

Now back to Mobile's E-Government initiative: By filling out an electronic form and transmitting it via e-mail to City Hall, a citizen has, essentially, conducted a B-to-B transaction. We have eliminated both the need for the middleman (the counter clerk) and avoided a trip downtown. From the taxpayers' perspective, the cost savings are real. But what are the problems? This application of the corporate model to conduct transactions obviously makes sense to business customers who routinely use these technologies. Unfortunately, not everyone is "wired" or conversant in the necessary technology. The complexity and costs of computers and internet connection will constitute substantial barriers to use by poor people and the elderly who are bewildered by the constantly changing technical world around them. Help these folks by having computers at public libraries and community centers? Get real, and put yourself in the place of a typical older citizen in need of some public service. Instead of a trip downtown, where you wait in line for a helpful clerk, you must now travel to a computer site where you will jostle with unruly teenagers for a place at the keyboard. And by the way, no one there will be able to answer your questions.

Another problem with E-Government stems from the fact that the web-based interface facing the citizen is menu-driven. In other words, the designers of the site determine what you can do and how you can do it. Any communication between the citizen and his local government must conform to limits and structures predetermined by the authorities. How about citizen concerns that don't fit the mold? Consider Mobile's recycling program -- garbage collectors are supposed to put bundled newsprint into separate compartments on their trucks. My neighbors have observed the trash men tossing these recyclables in with the rest of the refuse. Unfortunately, the city's web page does not appear to offer citizens an appropriate avenue to register some types of concerns or complaints -- or maybe it is just too difficult and confusing. In summary, E-Government makes good sense for business people and techno-savvy citizens; but please leave some human contact for the rest of us.


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