INTERNAUT

A digital government requires a commitment to public interchange

Shawn P. McCarthy

Digital government means more than posting information on the Internet or exchanging data in electronic format. True digital government means making a commitment to change the way agencies interact with the public.

With that in mind, I'd like to present a digital government manifesto for leaders who want to change the way data flows through federal, state and local agencies. Some points are controversial but, taken together, they'd make a far-reaching difference in the way government services flow to citizens.

• All government employees should have e-mail addresses.

Yes, there has been progress here, especially at the federal level, but some regional offices still share e-mail addresses, and many workers in low-level roles don't have e-mail because they don't need it. Some don't work at desks or have computers.

Every employee has a job to do, however, and that means communicating. E-mail, whether on your desk or in your hand, is one of the best ways to do this.

• All government forms should be available online in a suitable format for filling out and submitting via Web browser.

Paper forms won't vanish anytime soon, so agencies must integrate the paper data collection process into automated systems. They should set up a way to notify the public when electronic versions of forms become available.

• All government documents should be online.

Whether internal or external, government data should be stored in electronic format for easy sharing. Key information within documents should be tagged to ease Internet searches and Extensible Markup Language sharing.

• All databases should have a Web interface for remote searching.

Security and intranet controls are needed for nonpublic databases, but physical proximity to a database should not be a controlling factor for access.

• Paperwork reduction efforts should focus on Web services and elimination of redundant paper transfers.

• When possible, citizens should have a single point of contact for the agency they interact with most.

• A framework should be established for document authentication via standardized digital signatures and for confirmation of document transfers.

• Government overseers should set up metrics to track how much agencies improve their services by migrating to digital format.

Best-practices lists are essential at the agency level as well as on a broad, governmentwide scale. The metrics and lists should be reviewed quarterly to encourage updates and refinement.

• Clear audit trails are essential for online transactions so that hand-offs can be confirmed, time stamps reviewed and funds accounted for.

Because moving toward digital government, and a digital society in general, will leave some people behind, government must commit to improving the skill level of all citizens. That means establishing public Web access in libraries and kiosks. It means giving teachers the tools they need to show students how to use the Internet. It means a computer on each teacher's desk.

Only when teachers use computers for everything from grading homework to launching maps, graphs and videos for classroom viewing will they feel comfortable enough with the technology themselves to enrich students' learning.

• Every government agency should install a public kiosk at its buildings to provide after-hours information and collect data.

• Government should encourage incentive programs and cooperative projects to solve specific problems of data collection, public education and service to citizens.

Even the nation's librarians don't know where to point people for the data they seek, and the average citizen is overwhelmed trying to find things.

The government should help develop a Web interface for libraries and universities to send people directly to government information. Such an interface could include access to top databases and a search and navigation scheme that's clearly understandable.

Agencies should cooperate with third parties seeking to develop such systems, particularly those that will offer the service free to the public.

• The communications industry needs further deregulation to foster competition and services in multiple formats and technologies. Television, radio, the Internet and telephones are slowly merging. Laws that regulate these industries need to catch up.

• Government agencies should compete to provide select services to citizens and each other.

Without competition, any organization tends to focus more on its internal needs than on external service to customers. If there is a chance that customers will leave, making the agency's functions superfluous, it is far likelier to develop into a leaner, faster, more cost-effective entity.

Certainly the Agriculture Department isn't going to start collecting income taxes, and the Education Department isn't going to start defending the country. But several agencies are already offering central services such as payroll processing and Web hosting.

Other agencies could offer help desks or network maintenance service, turning cost centers into profit centers. And customer agencies can spark efficiency by taking their business elsewhere if the service slips.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

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