It's time for real-time government

At the close of the 1999 General Services Administration's Leadership Conference, the audience watched a video of a blind man, guided by a partner who could see, running a marathon. The powerful and moving video of the blind man and his partner running up and down hills and on narrow paths presented a compelling message to expand government's thinking to what we can do to promote the conference's theme of electronic government: Agencies must imagine interacting with one another and with the public in ways that they never thought possible.

We know that the government's future will entail dramatic changes in methods for delivering products and services to the public, driven primarily by the transition to a World Wide Web-enabled business environment. This is only the beginning of the awesome change we will experience in the next five years.

To meet these challenges, we must expand our thinking more broadly beyond the Web to a new paradigm. Government anywhere and any time is evolving to include additional elements of government in real time and wherever a person is located. I like to think of this new paradigm as "real-time government." I think the future can best be explained through the following example:

A digital camera would be integrated with my cell phone. The cell phone would upload pictures I take at some remote location to my Web site at work or at home. In parallel, my Web site automatically would organize my pictures and make them available via the Web in real time. My digital camera and cell phone combination would be one small device that fits in my shirt pocket, plus it would have Global Positioning System capabilities, a pager, a smart card with biometric information and a palm organizer that can provide me with updates on my stocks, weather forecasts for my location, e-mail messages and other data. All of these elements exist today, and the market is reorganizing corporate America for these new changes.

Real-time government is about responding to the increase in the number of electronic devices the public uses to receive or to provide information in real time. This revolution will pick up more speed as more devices become available. The big Internet service providers already have or are looking at more aggressive delivery of information to individuals by combing Web site services with palm organizers, pagers, wireless Internet phones, Global Positioning Systems, smart cards and other device-driven capabilities. With a little bit of creativity, plug-and-play standards and solutions will emerge for devices of all types to be integrated with Web sites through wireless telephones.

The new challenge for the federal government will be to aggressively incorporate consumer and work-related devices into Web sites to deliver or obtain information in real time, no matter where a user is located. The increased complexity and costs of Web sites in this environment will lead to a consolidation of sites — at least in interactions with the public — to contain costs.

The difficulty of developing and supporting a real-time environment across many consumer and work-related devices makes it even more important for agencies to work together to share solutions. If we keep in contact to share our accomplishments, we not only can run the race but can compete to be outstanding example of service to the public.

The only issue is, Have I stretched my thinking far enough? The Web has a habit of taking thinking that is three to five years out and implementing solutions in a matter of months.

I would like to invite federal employees and vendors working with the federal government to open a new dialogue on real-time government. Please send responses to letters@fcw.com. The responses will be used to formulate first steps and will be a basis for a future column.

— Kellett, founder of the Federal Web Business Council and co-chairman of the Federal Webmaster Forum, is director of the Emerging IT Policies Division at the General Services Administration.

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