Government Technology

Made to Order

January 26, 2005 By

The lofty old rhetoric about how digital technologies will fundamentally remake government is notably absent from most public CIOs' mouths these days. The public CIO job seems to have morphed from a visionary role to a more tactical role. The current line: steady, incremental improvement -- not transformation.

E-government has also virtually disappeared from governors' State of the State speeches -- a far cry from just a few years ago when not talking about it meant announcing you were a political dinosaur. Columnist Tom Davies summed up the prevailing mood: "From the beginning, e-gov was never really on track to produce a revolution in state and local government performance."

The new conventional wisdom is just as wrong as the early e-government hype.

In researching my new book, Government 2.0: Using Technology to Improve Education, Cut Red Tape, Reduce Gridlock, and Enhance Democracy, I spent three years interviewing hundreds of government decision-makers and thought leaders. I became convinced of two things: First, today's technologies can play a crucial role in fixing modern government problems -- changing how we commute, pay our taxes, register our businesses and even how our kids learn. Second, none of this will happen without a fundamental change of thinking. While existing technologies give us power to transform everything from how businesses are regulated to how government protects citizens from terrorism, our thinking hasn't caught up with our tools. We're still trapped in an Industrial Age government mindset.

The failure to fully imagine how to best use new technologies is not unique to government or modern times. Throughout history there almost always has been a lag between the introduction of a new technology and its transformative use. Case in point: Centuries lapsed between the Alexandrian Greeks' invention of the steam engine and James Watt's brain wave in 1769 about what to do with it.

Government will never truly realize IT's transformative benefits until it rethinks and redesigns government systems, service delivery mechanisms and bureaucratic structures to reflect Information Age realities.

Government as Information Broker

Trying to decide which airline will get you to that important sales presentation on time? The U.S. Department of Transportation ranks airlines by on-time departure and arrival records, and posts the information on its Web site. Hoping to shave your monthly electricity bill by switching to a new supplier, but have no idea which to choose? The Texas Electric Choice Web site provides confused consumers of Texas' now deregulated electricity market with neutral information comparing rates, terms and conditions of all potential energy suppliers. Seeking the best nursing home for your aging mother? publishes rankings of nursing homes throughout the country based on factors like nutrition, quality of life and quality of care.

As these examples demonstrate, governments can use the Web to help citizens make more informed decisions by distributing information they collect about both the public and private sectors. This is one of the most vital roles for government in a digital world: providing accurate, easy access to information. Governments usually collect this kind of information anyway. By making it widely available and packaging it in user-friendly ways, the public sector can facilitate markets, protect consumers and help citizens make important life decisions.

"Government used to view the information it occasionally collected as a means to some other goal: fixing a street or issuing a license," explained Harvard University Professor Stephen Goldsmith. "Information itself now is a product. In a complex society, the Internet facilitates government's role in aggregating and distributing information about access, quality and price."

One successful example of this is school report cards. State governments compile online report cards with data ranging from average test scores to dropout rates and class sizes. The report cards enable parents to make more informed choices about their

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