@INFO.POLICY

Beware offering more than the Net can deliver

Robert Gellman

Hey kids, What time is it? No, it's not Howdy Doody time any more. It's Internet time.

What is Internet time? Internet time is 24-7. Internet time is instant messaging. Internet time is an immediate response to my e-mail message. Internet time is right now'maybe even a few minutes ago.

What is it when it isn't Internet time? How about government time? Government time doesn't have a precise definition, but anything measured by government time takes longer, not necessarily in geological terms but slower than elsewhere in the real world.

Government isn't intentionally glacial, but size and bureaucracy take their toll. Experience tells us not to expect things quickly from a government agency.

So what happens when the Internet meets the government? When the irresistible force meets the immovable object? What happens is that we have a clash of cultures.

In many ways, the government has done well in using the Internet. There are zillions of government Web pages. It is hard to imagine life without immediate online access to the Library of Congress' Thomas or to the Federal Register at the Government Printing Office.

That was the easy part. Put it on the Net, and tell people to come and get it. Users come when they want and take what they need.

More recently, agencies have begun to provide government services online directly to citizens and businesses. It is wonderful when an agency gives customers access to records online, along with the ability to make corrections, file for benefits, ask questions and perform other functions.

As long as everything is fully automated, we all breeze along in Internet time. Until, that is, someone hits a snag and needs customer service. When it comes to personal responses, we are back to government time and not Internet time. Too often, the government deals with e-mail on a snail-mail clock.

What to do? First, recognize that the problem exists and acknowledge it. It is fine to transfer functions to the Internet, but agencies must recognize that they will have to provide customer service and that it will be more challenging to provide it online. You need to be more responsive to online users, but you can't show favoritism.

Second, remember that better-designed processes and posting more frequently asked questions will help visitors. Also remember that many users will still be Internet neophytes.

Third, don't force everyone onto the Net. It will be a long time before everyone is willing or able to do business on the Internet for Social Security accounts, Medicare claims or what have you. It is OK to push businesses to use the Net, but individuals will need other options for at least another decade or two.

Finally, how do you deal with the aficionados who live in Internet time? Unfortunately, the best response for now is to manage their expectations.

If it takes six weeks to respond, then make sure that they know up front.

Post the turnaround time for e-mail responses and direct people to alternatives.

Until agencies can manage to operate in Internet time, the least they can do is let people know that they still function on government time.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@cais.com.

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