Industry wary of e-gov competition

"The Role of Government in a Digital Age"

It's fine if the Labor Department's online job bank helps you find work,

but the Postal Service shouldn't be helping you pay your bills online and

the IRS shouldn't be using the Internet to help you prepare your tax returns,

a technology industry group contends.

The federal government must be careful to avoid offering services that compete

with commercial enterprises, the Computer and Communications Industry Association says

in a study of the emerging e-government.

"The government was never meant to use information technology and the Internet

to become a publicly funded market competitor," Ed Black, CCIA president,

said Thursday.

Nevertheless, Black said, the government is competing with commercial electronic

bill-paying businesses through the Postal Service's eBillPay service, and

IRS' plans to offer online tax preparation services would compete with private

tax preparation services.

E-government is evolving without clear guidelines to spell out the separation

between government and business, the CCIA said.

In its study, the association offers 12 such guidelines. Among them:

* The government should use the Internet to improve the efficiency of

governmental services and to support basic research.

* However, the government should be careful about online services where

it adds value to public information, because in those cases, government

runs the risk of competing with industry.

* Government agencies should also be cautious about entering markets in

which private companies are operating, and they should avoid offering services

that aim to maximize net revenues, the association says.

* Helping people find jobs is acceptable under the CCIA's guidelines, even

though many commercial companies are in the same business.

The government has been helping people find jobs for 60 years — long before

there was an Internet — so doing so online is just another version of a

long-standing service. Also, the Labor Department provides basic information

about jobs but it does not charge for the service, and it offers information

about lower-wage jobs, which commercial employment companies tend to ignore,

CCIA said.

The Postal Service's electronic bill-paying service is a different matter,

however.The Postal Service competes directly with private companies and

it charges for the service. Electronic bill-paying is not a fundamental

government service, but is a service the private sector developed. As such,

the government should not be pushing in as a competitor, the CCIA argues.

As electronic government grows, there must be a debate over what is an appropriate

role for government in the Digital Age, Black said. Business are increasingly

concerned about government, "not as a regulator of private enterprise, but

as a competitor to private enterprise," he said.

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