Cast a wide net when going online

Although the use of the Internet may reduce costs and cut the time to file

documents and buy products and services, agencies should be careful that

the technology that makes it happen doesn't leave behind large portions

of the public, according to industry experts.

For example, Arizona, which held the first electronic poll for a presidential

primary this year, was criticized because the poll favored those with PCs,

typically the wealthy, over those without Internet access, typically low-income

families, said Gene DeLucia, president of GovConnect.com.

"Government needs to make sure it protects the interests of everyone,"

he said. "Only 56 percent of the population has access to the Internet — that leaves 43 percent who don't and must find other means such as telephones

to communicate with the government."

The Internet is no longer everything, said Kelvin Womack, an e-commerce

analyst for KPMG LLC. "Agencies need to communicate in a variety of means,"

he said. "They need people to answer the phone or connect to people in some

other way."

The digital divide will eventually be narrowed, just as the technological

divide was bridged in the early 20th century between those who owned automobiles

and those families who could not afford cars and still had to rely on horses,

according to Womack.

"Ten years ago, the use of e-mail was unbelievable," he said. "In the

next few years, people who have grown up using the Internet will be entering

the work force and will understand the value of the Internet. They are going

to be experienced using technology and doing business on the Internet and

will expect it at work."

To close the digital divide, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, chairman and CEO of

govWorks.com, said agencies must also consider the range of information

and services all Americans need, particularly those who have yet to obtain

Internet access. When developing Web sites and online services, agencies

have focused too much on Americans who already have Internet access, Isaza

Tuzman said. Agencies should also keep in mind people who need other kinds

of information — for example, about welfare programs or medicines for their

children.

"You're missing the needs component, and it's going to have ripple effects

in the equality of access," Isaza Tuzman said. "We need to address the human

needs in the digital divide because it's a huge boomerang, and 20 or 30

years ahead, these same issues and politics will come back."

To avoid the "boomerang" effect, vendors must provide government agencies

with a lot more than just hardware and software. "Many companies sell a

product and walk away," Isaza Tuzman said.

Governments need more attention from vendors, much like a first-time

mother needs advice and counsel on child care, he said. "You can't just

give a little advice to a first-time mother [such as], "You're going to

get morning sickness. Here's the phone number to the hospital and the doctor.'

You need emotional counseling and the doctor and husband's point of view,"

Isaza Tuzman said.

"This is a whole new way for governments to interact with their citizenry

and they need training, emotional counseling for issues that come up with

the technology, public relations and any other frustrations. If you don't

provide that, you're not being a responsible vendor."

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