Online services are just fine, but they can't replace people

I've attended four conferences in the last couple of months where speakers extolled the virtues of a leading online bookseller. Futurists, business gurus, high government officials'they all say is the Internet model for everyone, including agencies delivering services to citizens.

Well, maybe. But the other night I was with my son in a Borders bookstore, listening to a folksinging group. As they were setting up, I joked to the drummer, 'You can't do this on Amazon.' The drummer replied, 'Sure you can, just fire up your MP3 player.'

Yeah, but with an MP3 player or even on television, you experience neither the nuances nor the ambience of a live performance.

To listen to some prognosticators, bricks and mortar equals bad; cyberspace equals good. They're wrong. People-to-people interaction vs. online transactions isn't a zero sum game. This is something government policy-makers, project managers and information technology workers should remember.

Too often, lawmakers, city councils and even appointed agency heads view online services as a way to cut costs and reduce head counts. They should be viewed as a way to enhance government service. Few people want to stand in line. But that doesn't mean offices can disappear if services are accessible online.

It takes live people to manage the transactions that are exceptions to the routine, and culturally, people expect their government to be associated with a place'preferably one made of durable materials and classic architecture. And don't forget, not everyone has Internet access. Devising online services is only part of an agency's challenge. Figuring out what to leave in place, as far as people and facilities, is another.

Recently, 31,000 people were able to log on and view, via the Web, a murder trial in Orange County, Fla., as a story on Page 19 of this issue details. That's far fewer than the 21,000 per hour who tried to log on, but a lot more than could have viewed the trial otherwise. Unlimited numbers of people can view television broadcasts, but the technology and costs to do webcasts is within the reach of far more governments.

In Orange County, the judiciary's communications and networking infrastructure is a service-to-the-citizen medium and a platform for conducting the court's back-office business.'But no one there, or anywhere else I've heard of, is suggesting conducting trials anywhere but inside a courtroom with all the participants present. Government still needs courtrooms, furniture and live people.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

Internet: [email protected]


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