E-government: By the people, for the people

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 are.

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 and Budget.

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, he said.

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 on paper.


Sidebar: "Provoking thought" [Federal Computer Week, May 22, 2000]

The e-Government Project

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee

BY William Matthews
May 22, 2000

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