E-government not clicking for feds

The federal government has more than 20,000 World Wide Web sites, but the

plethora of pages doesn't mean the federal sector is speeding toward a functioning

electronic government, according to Alan Balutis, co-chairman of the federal

CIO Council's E-Government Committee.

There is distressing evidence that the government may still be years

away from delivering the kind of convenient, interactive service that citizens

want, Balutis told a gathering of government and business information technology

specialists June 7. "Government is still a nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday,

paper-driven" enterprise, he said.

It may take five or more years before there is an electronic government

that is comparable to today's electronic businesses, Balutis said.

The slow pace of e-government progress has been a growing concern during

recent months. In a paper published in March, for example, the Progressive

Policy Institute observed that the government is "only moving tentatively

into digital operations," while "the commercial sector is moving at "Web

speed' into e-commerce."

"Despite the obvious promise of digital government, it has not yet become

a priority of most policy-makers," the institute said. "Relative to the

capabilities of the technology, much more can be done." The Progressive

Policy Institute is allied with the Democratic Party.

In his mind's eye, Balutis, who is also director of the Commerce Department's

Advanced Technology Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology,

sees the Internet radically changing the relationship between citizens and

government.

E-government would work by making information, services and transactions

at all levels of government easy and instantly available to citizens. It

would also improve and increase interactions among agencies at the federal,

state and local levels, turning government into "a seamless, customer-centric"

entity, Balutis said. We're a long way from there, he added.

Take a look at a typical federal Web site, Balutis said. Prominent features

usually include a picture of the agency secretary and copies of recent speeches — not especially helpful to someone trying to conduct business with the

agency.

And there is little interconnectivity among agency Web sites. Although

multiple agencies are often involved in providing services to an individual,

they are seldom linked electronically in a way that simplifies things for

the citizen. Instead, agencies "are clearly replicating the same stovepiped,

agency-centric mode" they created in the paper bureaucracy, he said.

Balutis is optimistic that improvements will come. "People are clearly

clamoring for e-government," he said. In many areas, state and local governments

are ahead of the federal government because people interact more with state

and local agencies and have demanded better service, he said.

And there is encouraging evidence of activity at the federal level.

Eighteen months ago, when he was asked to help plan a conference, Balutis

said he suggested focusing on electronic government. Skeptical, the other

planners asked whether he really thought anyone was interested in the subject.

Now, the government is "awash" in people working on e-government, although

not all have a solid understanding of the subject, he said.

"The major mistake that agencies make is assuming that this is about

technology," he said. "This is not about technology. It is about new ways

of organizing and thinking."

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