E-government's hidden gem
- By Steve Kelman
- Oct 02, 2000
I recently came across an article in The Industry Standard that suggests
a whole area of potential for elec-tronic government that hasn't received
the attention it deserves.
Much of the buzz about e-government has centered on how the Internet
might facilitate government-to- citizen transactions — getting passports
and national park camping reservations online, or remitting fees, taxes
But professor Lawrence Lessig, who has become renowned for his writings
on Internet privacy issue, says e-government should be delivering better
public access to data that agencies collect.
Lessig, of Stanford Law School, starts his citing a United
Airlines ad saying that nobody really knew to what extent delays resulted
from weather, heavy traffic or other causes. How can the answer to this
question not be known? Lessig asks. Doesn't the Federal Aviation Administration
"We live in an age when Kmart can tell how many Huggies were sold in
its stores across the country 10 minutes ago, but public officials, and,
hence, the public, can't really say why airplanes don't fly," Lessig writes.
"That's not because the data doesn't exist somewhere within the government — it does, spread across a gaggle of different computer systems, no doubt
accessible through super-human diligence — it's just not easily accessible
Getting existing government data into formats that are more usable by
citizens and getting that data online are e-government challenges that
belong right up there with facilitating electronic transactions. Indeed,
Lessig, with a bit of irony, sees "the next great hope for the information
revolution" being "that we might be able to learn as much about governments
and business as they have learned about us."
What Lessig says goes beyond creating portals to give citizens easier
access to text information across agency Web sites so they can learn more
about services available somewhere in the government for anyone starting
a small business. It will often require serious tinkering with existing
databases and systems.
The federal government is making some progress in this area. For example,
the Environmental Protection Agency has arranged environmental data so that
citizens can go online to see how often air quality standards are exceeded
in their area. And an effort is under way to put federal procurement statistics
on the World Wide Web in a way that will enable citizens to use them for
running what-if analyses and cross-tabulations, rather than making people
dependent on the Federal Procurement Data Center for data analyses.
Coming up with creative ways to make statistics available to citizens,
in ways they can use and even manipulate them, should be a priority as
e-government moves forward.
—Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993
to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's John
F. Kennedy School of Government.