E-government's hidden gem

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"Face off"

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

and fines.

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

collect data?

"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

to us."

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.


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