Taking a step back

Federal Computer Week debuted March 23, 1987, with a report on the Reagan administration's decision to withdraw a controversial plan that would have restricted access to "public computer databases," accompanied by a striking photograph of Rear Adm. John Poindexter blowing a cloud of smoke as he testifies before Congress.

As FCW marks its 15th anniversary, Poindexter is back in government, heading up the Defense Department's Information Awareness Office, charged with using technology to improve national secu.rity decision-making. Public interest advocates, meanwhile, are protesting the Bush administration's request that agencies exercise tighter control on information that could aid terrorists.

Flipping through pages of FCW published during the past 15 years, it's easy to reflect on how little has changed. Many of the same issues show up year after year: procurement reform, troubled modernization programs, workforce shortages and, of course, privacy and security concerns.

But a lot has changed as well. Consider procurement. Laws aimed at streamlining acquisition during the mid-1990s sparked an amazing evolution in contracting, helping the federal government generally shake its reputation as a perpetual tenant of the backwaters of the technology industry.

Focusing on such issues, though, as important as they are, is like studying Van Gogh's brush strokes on Starry Night. Sometimes you need to step back and look at the big picture.

Up until the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, agency officials talked about technology in terms of efficiencies. The "do-more-with-less" era reached its zenith with former Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review.

The Internet, of course, has brought about some amazing "efficiencies" in more recent years, and those stories have dominated the pages of FCW. But that's a narrow perspective.

Most people talk about the Internet in terms of e-government services, such as filing taxes or requesting information online, focusing on the efficiencies for government and the convenience for citizens. But efficiency and convenience are brush strokes. The Internet, in the big picture, is all about access.

By moving information and services online, the federal government is accessible to the general public in a way never before possible. A good example is the Federal Election Commission's online database of campaign finance disclosures by political candidates, which translates access into accountability.

And the online availability of government information in such areas as health care, law enforcement, the environment and big business is proving a valuable resource for policy-makers and public service organizations, as well as individual citizens seeking better information.

The federal government, in short, has never had such an opportunity to be a visible presence to the general public. With that shift, of course, comes new problems, not the least of which are privacy and security concerns, as recognized back in 1987. And 15 years later, the problems are as perplexing as ever.

It would be a mistake to play down the challenges involved or to assume that a true e-government is a done deal. Much work remains to be done. But as the government confronts these difficulties, crafting new policies and recasting services, it is worth remembering how this daily work fits into the big picture.


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