Local Governments Should Lead the Way to Community Technology

Lately, more and more municipal Web sites have sprouted, containing information believed to be useful to citizens. Some sites even make use of on-line forms to let people do government business over the Internet, including filing permit and zoning applications and taxes.

These systems can help governments speed up the rates at which they evolve. They're also good for giving citizens faster, streamlined access to government information and decisions. However, government managers who stop at this "show and tell" level of electronic government miss an important opportunity to advance the civic life of their communities.

As we've learned in Pittsburgh, one of the most rewarding opportunities-for governments and citizens alike-comes from helping create and develop community-based technology access centers for a wide array of citizens. Schools, libraries and hospitals-all slated to receive various discounts under the "universal service" provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996-should be major players in developing these networks.

Of course, in many cities some citizens fall outside the constituencies served by these big institutions. People without school-age children may not relate to a school as a place to use the Internet. Those with weak reading skills may be intimidated by libraries. And as welfare reform unfolds, many whom government seeks to involve in technical education and training may be poorly served by the standard institutions.

Those are some of the lessons learned in Pittsburgh. In 1994, the city and the Pittsburgh public schools began building a community computer and Internet connectivity project in four community locations and six public schools. The Hill House Community Access Network (hillhouse.ckp.edu) is managed by a citizen advisory council. The network server is at the Hill House Association, a neighborhood settlement house.

Today there are 18 locations, each outfitted by local government with fully Internet-capable equipment. Besides schools, other sites include a large public-housing facility, a residential rehabilitation program, a city-sponsored youth training center, youth tutorial projects at five local churches, the neighborhood community development corporation, the local office of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the local YMCA.

Ultimately, a citywide network of up to 100 community locations arranged in 10 hubs is expected by 1999.

Each community network location can link directly to local government-all city facilities are wired-through the hub server for its group of neighborhoods.

Public funds are being used to create the infrastructure and to buy some equipment. Private-foundation funds will provide multiple-year support for community technology training, central network administration and some equipment. Business partners will provide connectivity and some equipment.

Some have argued that local governments should stay out of such projects, instead occupying themselves with creating Web sites and linking government buildings.

But that view appears to stem from an elitist, old-fashioned notion about local governments-namely, that they are dictatorial, manipulative, plodding and uncreative.

Today those attributes don't characterize local governments any more than they do academic institutions or nonprofit advocacy groups, which is mainly where such criticisms originate. Plenty of creative, democratic, trustworthy public servants in local government "get it" when it comes to the potential of the Internet to help improve the lives of citizens in their towns and cities.

Should a local government operate a community network? Probably not. It's a better idea to settle on an intermediary organization with a narrow enough focus to do a really good job of running the network.

But in Pittsburgh, we've learned that the benefits of computers and Internet technology are greatest for all citizens when local governments play a strong role in helping create and develop community access centers for a wide array of users.

Dave Farley is the grants and development officer in the Office of the Mayor, Pittsburgh. He can be reached at farley@infobahn.icubed.com.

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