The Web has forever changed the way governments at all levels interact with one another and with the citizens they serve.
Widespread Internet access is expected to completely alter people's ability to tap into government resources in the next few years and make government work more effectively.
"The possibility of improving the performance of government and connecting government to citizens in a meaningful way using technology is enormous," says Pat McGinnis, president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government, a Washington-based nonprofit organization committed to helping improve the performance of government at all levels in the U.S.
Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime
"Electronic government is a situation where anyone anywhere can go online anytime, not only to get the information they need but also to actually receive services, complete transactions, communicate with their elected representatives and even to vote," says McGinnis.
The transformation McGinnis describes is significant. Electronic, or Web-enabled, governments are quickly moving to offer citizens the opportunity to use their home computers to pay taxes, apply for student financial aid or renew drivers' licenses. It can mean the difference between standing in line at a department of motor vehicles office and going online in your own home.
Although electronic government has its roots in the future, it's not all vaporware today. Agencies, from the federal branches in Washington to the multitudes of state and local government offices around the country, are starting to push electronic government.
For example, most people can already file their tax returns online and take advantage of a host of other federal, state and local online services, which enable them to review real-estate records, apply for building permits or analyze legal records and regulations. And citizens appear to be willing to use these services.
Citizens Like It
A survey of 303 private citizens and 103 business representatives published last month by the Momentum Research Group at Cunningham Communication Inc. in Austin, Texas, found that two out of three adults have completed at least one government transaction online and that they're more satisfied with online services than they are with traditional forms of government interaction.
Several up-and-coming government Web sites were honored last month when MIT and Chicago-based Andersen Consulting presented their eCitizen Service Awards for best practices in electronic government. Judges selected government sites that are easy to navigate and support a plethora of transactions and services.
"At a minimum, e-government should be about enabling direct access to the relevant decision-makers or clerks with responsibility over your issues and transactions," says Daniel Greenwood, one of the four judges for the awards who is also director of the e-commerce architecture project at MIT.
Electronic government can help people reach out and get involved in the political process, says Greenwood. It can also help people be "digitally present at a legislative or administrative hearing," for example, while allowing them to oversee and guide government decision-making in the years between elections, he says.
Tackling Security and Privacy
The chief barriers to electronic-government "can be summed up in two words - security and privacy," says Joanne Connelly, a consultant at Federal Sources Inc., a federal contracting and electronic government consulting firm in McLean, Va.
"Funding constraints also are an issue. Convenience fees aren't going to work.
Citizens won't pay," says Connelly.
There are also cultural obstacles within government that may limit acceptance of electronic government. "One barrier is the need for buy-in from all facets of government," including "every layer, from the secretary and deputies down to the lower-level employees," says Danielle Germain, e-government program manager at the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).
Another critical issue for the federal government is its aging IT workforce, says Germain. Recent studies have shown that 60% to 70% of the 70,000 federal IT workers will become eligible for retirement by 2003. "This could severely impact the pace of e-government if steps are not taken to infuse new IT workers into federal jobs," she says.
Targeted training programs, better salaries and benefit incentives and more flexible hiring practices could help the government avoid a workforce crisis, says Marjorie Bynum, vice president for workforce development at ITAA.
Verton is a freelance writer in Washington. Contact him at DMVerton@aol.com.