Another View: Poll reveals the next e-government challenge

Patricia McGinns

Americans want it all when it comes to electronic government: convenient service and protection for their personal information.

Close to half of all U.S. citizens expect that if they give personal information to a government Web site, the government will do a better job of providing them with services. But almost half also worry that the government might also be able to invade their privacy. And about 40 percent agree with both statements.

These are some of the key findings of a new Hart-Teeter Research poll, released last month by the Council for Excellence in Government. The poll showed that American Internet users visit federal, state and local government Web sites both for information and to make transactions that would otherwise have them waiting in line or on hold.

In fact, a majority of Americans are online, knowledgeable about e-government and exploring its uses. They think e-government can strengthen homeland security and their interactions with agencies and elected representatives.

For those who believe strongly in e-government's great promise, much of this is encouraging news.

But the poll results also reveal a complicated challenge. In effect, Americans want easy and effective e-government, but they also want to protect their information while using it. Striking a balance between these legitimate goals is the next step in the e-government revolution. It must be achieved for e-government to reach its full potential.

How can agencies best move down this road?

First, government officials at all levels must work with the IT industry to apply the required safeguards and build the public's confidence in government Web sites. For example, sites should not merely apply state-of-the-art security tools. They must also give users information about security testing and risks.

Second, agencies must stay sharply focused on citizens and businesses'the customers and owners of government. Public and private organizations are occasionally guilty of looking at service delivery and interaction with the public from the inside out.

To avoid that unhelpful perspective, government must engage with citizens, including those who don't yet have access to the Internet. The customer is still always right, after all, and must be at the center of the e-government enterprise.

Third, be sure to engage Congress. House and Senate committees ought to consider holding public forums around the country on the potential of e-government. They should use the technology in this process, letting people take part in discussions online and in person.

The executive branch could also convene public discussions of this kind, perhaps as joint sessions with the legislative branch. Such forums would be constructive ways to air the issues of privacy and security, and advance the thinking of legislators, government managers and citizens.

Congress also needs to explore ways to invest in e-government more flexibly and strategically. The current agency-by-agency appropriation of funds fosters neither enterprisewide benefits nor economies of e-government.
Collaborating in the design, management and funding of e-government is essential to realize the promise of this powerful tool and to achieve the performance and accountability citizens all want from their government.

We can have it all, if we work together.

Patricia McGinnis is president and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington. For more information, go to www.excelgov.org.

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