A Problem for Y2K: Creating Digital Government

An unusual sense of urgency permeated this year's conference of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives. You could hear it in the hallway chatter, the lunch-time conversations and the audience comments during the October event in Indianapolis.

You could almost see state chief information officers turning away from their focus on getting legacy systems through the Year 2000 date change and being drawn to face the uncertain future of digital government.

Unlike the private sector, which handled its Year 2000 tasks as just another information technology project, state governments had put almost everything else on hold for the past two years.

Citizens in our states and throughout the rest of the world, however, continued to move forward rapidly, adopting the Internet as the place to get information and conduct business. But suddenly, for governments, the race was on to catch up. Throughout the three-day conference, state CIOs looked for good ideas about Internet government that they could pack up, take home and adopt quickly.

The Internet is an ideal medium for offering government services. Busy people who have come to expect accessible information and services from the commercial world want nothing less from their governments. Relentless improvements in networking and computing technologies have made it possible for every citizen to take charge of his relationship with government. How will governments respond?

This nation's founders designed government to be deliberative. Debate, testimony and stakeholder participation are the means by which ideas are refined and improved until they command majority agreement. As a sage in the Washington state Senate often said, "If it's a good idea today, it will be a good idea tomorrow." The deliberative pace of government has served us well, slowing the rush to judgment and limiting the number of new laws that guide our society.

But what happens when the deliberate pace of government runs headlong into a world dashing on Internet time?

Is it in the "genes" of state government to willingly disrupt the old models of service delivery with new Internet applications that compete against tried-and-true methods? Traditionalists argue that state government cannot choose its customers but must provide service to all citizens regardless of whether they have access to current technology. Further, state governments are risk-averse, preferring to improve systems at the margin instead of launching new applications in unfamiliar environments.

I believe that taxpayers expect government to improve service and reduce cost. They see changes in their business, community and family life and ask why government hasn't changed as well. They know the Internet offers new ways to access information and services — at a fraction of the cost of older systems. They demand that government serve them electronically — at the time and place of their choosing.

Since government has no choice but to provide services over the Internet, we should take a lesson from successful dot-com enterprises that have succeeded by initiating completely new business models or by cannibalizing their bricks and mortar with information-based alternatives. Like our private-sector mentors, we must launch applications that compete with traditional methods of service delivery and be prepared to rebalance workload as citizens select the Internet as their preferred way to receive information and service.

We, too, must be willing to cannibalize our business models in favor of cheaper, more direct Internet alternatives.

One way to do this is to break our Internet application teams free so they can collaborate, learn and launch new applications that compete with older systems. We need separate Internet strategies that take aim at our current processes. Finally, we must be allowed to fail sometimes, as long as we fail quickly and gloriously, learn from the experience and do better next time.

A lot is at stake. The relevance of government to everyday life might hang in the balance.

— Steve E. Kolodney is director of the Washington state Department of Information Services.

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