For Success, the Top-Down Approach Isn't Enough

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"Government Issue"

To build an e-government, you need e-workers. That is the simple premise

of an ambitious proposal put forward last month by U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings

(D-Md.).

With the Federal Workforce Digital Access Act, Cummings proposes giving

nearly every federal employee free computers and Internet access. Cummings

says he would like agencies to give their workers remote access to agency

databases, making it possible for them to work from home when needed.

But the real point is play, not work. Theoretically, if people have

a chance to experiment with the technology and surf the World Wide Web outside

the constraints of the office, they will develop a better understanding

of what information technology can do. The net result would be a more IT-savvy

work force.

Of course, if we were going to be realistic, the proposal, involving

up to 1.8 million people, does not stand much of a chance in Congress.

Bold proposals rarely fare well during an election year, especially when

big money is involved. A Democrat proposing the idea in a Republican-controlled

House lessens its chances even further.

The proposal is also fraught with pitfalls, including questions about

cost, security and technical support. But although Cummings' proposal may

be flawed, the premise of the bill is dead-on, and state and local government

agencies, as much as their federal counterparts, need to realize that.

Government agencies have done well in the past couple of years to work

closely with their information services departments to find ways of streamlining

government operations and delivering services online. But that is not enough.

Ultimately, the best ideas for applying technology to government work

will come from the people "in the trenches," not the IT shop. The people

doing the day-to-day work have a familiarity with the foibles and flaws

of government operations that a chief information officer can never acquire.

But that is true only if the employees know enough about the technology

to recognize its potential. And the kind of familiarity we are talking about

does not develop from word processing, creating spreadsheets or exchanging

e-mail — as far as many people advance at work.

The consumer market is where it's happening. Want to get an idea for

doing financial transactions on the Internet? Try buying a book or CD online.

Want to know what makes a Web portal useful? Find a site that appeals to

you personally and see how it works.

Obviously, most government agencies cannot afford to offer their employees

free computers for personal use. Many federal agencies will balk at the

idea. But Cummings is right: E-government requires e-workers.

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