E-gov and security: today's yin and yang?

Stephen Holden

Government institutions and programs will emerge from the trauma of Sept. 11 much stronger than they had been on Sept. 10.

E-government programs will ultimately gain impetus from the country's new interest in government. But efforts to ensure safety at home could soak up too many dollars at e-gov's expense.

On the plus side, several factors are setting the stage for more widespread propensity to use online government services:

  • Confidence in government is up. Polls taken since Sept. 11 show the government's response to the attacks has reshaped citizens' attitudes about public service and servants.

    If lack of trust was a barrier to the use of e-government, perhaps the halo effect of rising trust will turn into acceptance of online service. It helps that online retailing and other services are growing.

  • Information management matters. One lesson from Sept. 11 is that information sharing among federal and state governments requires vast improvement. The fiscal 2003 budget includes a request for $722 million to improve information sharing as a specific mission of the Office of Homeland Security.

    But agencies must be wary of the implications of emerging security policies. Here is a short list of potential dangers:

  • Diminished information dissemination. In the name of security, some agencies have stripped information from their Web sites. A lack of standards governing this effort ensures some data will be wrongly left public and some wrongly taken away.

  • Privacy threats'the dark side of improved information sharing. E-government requires customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and supply chain management systems. Underpinning them is massive centralization of data.

    In the context of security, data centralization increases the potential for unlawful surveillance and data mining to track individuals' behavior. Such actions might erode the recently accrued public trust in government.

  • Fewer resources for e-government. A casualty of the federal budget crunch has been the e-government funding pool. The 2003 budget proposal confirms agencies continueto pay for such efforts separately, with the CIO Council passing the hat for joint efforts. It would be nice to have a big central pot of funds for e-gov, but constrained resources have a way of helping folks cast a more discerning eye on where to spend.

    If some of the proposed projects really provide the benefits promised, they ought to fare well in agency portfolio management reviews and rise to the top of funding priority lists anyway.

    The free flow of information is a hallmark of our republic. Expect the coming year to prompt explicit conversations within the administration and Congress about how we preserve this important democratic ideal without compromising security.

    It remains to be seen whether e-government will be part of the solution for homeland security or whether homeland security will be part of the problem for e-government.

    Stephen H. Holden, a former IRS manager, is assistant professor in the Information Systems Department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. E-mail him at
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