An online superpower?

When it comes to e-government, U.S. agencies have made great strides. Citizens armed with online access now can find information on government benefits, download forms and, in some cases, apply for services on the Web. But until more federal Web sites move beyond the simple dissemination of information, we won't be an online superpower.

Federal leaders won't need to reinvent the wheel, however, if they will profit from our allies' experiences. The United Kingdom and Finland, for example, provide integrated, online services for their citizens. The U.S. government took a step in that direction by incorporating state governments in its FirstGov Web portal.

But while U.S. agencies struggle to develop and follow Internet privacy policies, the United Kingdom is poised to issue a governmentwide standard for safeguarding personal information.

The E-Trust Charter builds on the U.K. Data Protection Act of 1998 and is tied to the larger privacy and data-sharing initiative under the cross-government Performance and Innovation Unit.

Another example is Canada, crowned the world's e-government leader by the technology consulting firm Accenture (the United States ranked third). By 2004, the Canadian government plans to unveil Secure Channel, an online network that will allow citizens to perform transactions in a private and secure environment.

So what do these e-gov-savvy countries have that we don't? The answer may lie in a centralized approach to online government, complete with an IT leader.

To date, the Bush administration has shown no interest in creating a federal chief information officer post, although the Office of Management and Budget tapped Mark Forman as its first associate director for IT and e-government. We don't want to underestimate Forman after only one month on the job; he certainly has the credentials to serve as the federal CIO. What remains to be seen is if he has the clout to direct much-needed governmentwide changes.

The U.S. government has the budget, innovation and talent pool to be an online superpower. But the opportunity to make it happen may pass us by for lack of an IT leader who has the real authority to make virtual government a reality.

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