E-government: By the people, for the people
- By William Matthews
- May 22, 2000
Imagine a democracy where ordinary citizens help decide what laws need to
be passed and how they should be written.
That was a radical idea when it was adopted by a small, agrarian country
in the 1780s. Now two senators think it may be possible to recreate that
kind of democracy in a sprawling urbanized giant by using the Internet.
Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) have launched
the e-Government Project, a World Wide Web site designed to enable citizens
to help shape legislation, and by extension, the future of electronic government.
The site, which can be accessed by clicking on a button on the Senate
Governmental Affairs Committee's Web site, contains
brief discussions of key issues related to electronic government, descriptions
of possible legislation and electronic forms for sending comments and suggestions
on the subject to the committee.
"This is an opportunity for people to contribute their ideas and opinions
before we begin drafting e-government legislation," Lieberman said at the
site's May 18 debut. "We are extending an unprecedented invitation to any
interested citizen to participate openly and interactively in the process
of writing legislation."
The Web site "invites every member of the public to what is, in essence,
an extended question-and-answer session" on e-government issues, Lieberman
said. Public participation is expected to influence the shape electronic
government takes as it is formed, he said.
The e-Government Project "is the first time we have had this kind of
interactivity" between Congress and the public, said Thompson, who is chairman
of the Governmental Affairs Committee. "This presents us with the opportunity
to get some substantive ideas at a time when we need them."
In addition to accepting comments, there is space on the site to read
comments received. Comments may be submitted anonymously, and those who
supply their names can request that their names not be posted if their comments
The site makes it possible for anyone with a computer, an Internet connection
and an idea to participate in a national discussion about creating e-government.
"They don't have to come to Washington, they can do it from home any time
they want," a Lieberman aide said.
In that way, the e-Government Project serves as a prototype for an electronic
government that is easily accessible around the clock.
"This is a wonderful way to reinvigorate government," said Patricia
McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, a policy
organization dedicated to improving government performance.
"A majority of people, young people especially, don't think of government
as being of, by and for the people," she said. "They think of it as "The
Government.' This will go a long way toward giving the government back
to the people."
"Polls show that most Americans don't trust the government," said G. Edward
DeSeve, former acting deputy director for management at the Office of Management
Greater accessibility through the Internet may restore the public's
trust, but "just setting up a Web site is not enough," he said. The public's
input must be "mined, sifted and examined," and useful suggestions adopted,
The e-Government Project comes as a growing portion of the U.S. population
is able to reach government online. Still, about 60 percent of Americans
do not have the computers or Internet access needed to participate.
That's a problem, Lieberman conceded. To accommodate the offline majority,
the e-Government Project is making its discussion topics available on paper,
and the Governmental Affairs Committee will accept comments and suggestions