Making e-government more than a glorified service-delivery platform

Sure, we can file taxes and check Social Security benefits online. But where's the participative democracy?

A few weeks back, we reported on a McKinsey & Company study that concludes that to date, e-government is still only a glorified service-delivery platform , due to obstacles such as, ironically, poor governance.

In a new Webcast that includes the director of the White House Open Government Initiative, e-government proponents explain why e-government can mean much, much more than mere online service delivery.

For example, look at the impact on internal operations. Citizens and taxpayers aren't the only ones that get frustrated with government. More often than not, government employees themselves feel stymied in their attempts to serve constituents and share information within one of the world's largest and most complex organizations.

As Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, put it: “I’m sure many government employees and administrators are frustrated by their own systems that are built on 20th century models, and would love to see a better bird’s eye view of what the agencies are working on, where the budget is, how decisions are made as well as finding people within their own agencies that might have a solution that could work faster and better.”

Rasiej was recently joined in the FASTforward blog-hosted Webcast with Beth Simone Noveck, US Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, moderated by Renee Hopkins of Strategy and Innovation.

Noveck says she is seeing examples of government employees becoming more engaged as collaborative and innovation opportunities arise. For example, she relates:

"The [Veterans Administration] launched a competition a couple of weeks ago to ask 19,000 employees how to reduce the backlog of veterans’ benefits claims. They are running an employee idea generation platform, essentially. And of those 19,000 eligible employees, 12,000 have already used the platform.  So the notion that central management sitting in Washington is going to know best how to solve a problem that’s occurring out across the country in dealing with people on a day-to-day basis is just ludicrous. It’s the people who are actually in the front lines of dealing with those problems who will know.”

Technology -- particularly collaborative and social networking services -- present new opportunities to not only open up government and make it more accessible, but also facilitate greater information sharing, Rasiej points out. “If we can get our agencies – let’s call them bureaucracies, our systems of government -- to recognize a new collaborative era, we may actually find ways to save money, reduce waste and, most importantly, create transparency that provides for a very important byproduct which is citizen engagement and the dissolution of apathy.”

Then there's the even broader implications for democracy and open society. We've come a long way in a short time, Noveck says. But the government is still only dipping its toes in the waters of collaboration and social networking. “The first generation of e-government was already a sort of Herculean step in itself," she says. "The ability to deliver some basic things like forms to citizens, the ability then to transact with those forms so that you could, for instance, pay your taxes online."

The potential impact of e-government extends well beyond simply delivering services online, she says. It will represent “a shift in how we conceive of government itself and, I think, fundamentally how we think about our democracy" -- from a client-customer model to a forum in which important decisions are undertaken collaboratively.

Rasiej envisions a day when collaborative multi-stakeholder scenario planning will be available or created with the public to deal with complex public policy issues such as water management or adaptation to climate change. While he admits that theories around collaborative government and collaborative democracy are still "out of the box and not yet been fully understood," there is potential for greater innovation in problem-solving:

“As more and more networks are built, and more and more data is available and the public itself gets used to be asking for input – which includes digging into data, tapping into personal or professional expertise, collaborating with others of similar interests - to solving long-standing problems, we’re going to see some very unique solutions, some efficiencies and, conceivably, a better governance system, that eliminates waste, creates more transparency and increases civic participation.”

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