E-gov lays security net

Public Technology Inc.

Instead of being a casualty of budget cuts, e-government initiatives will play an integral role in enhancing hometown safeguards, some local officials contend.

Last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks spurred municipalities to begin electronically monitoring water systems, install facial-recognition technology in business districts and promote interoperable voice and data radio communications systems. Police, fire, ambulance and other emergency personnel hope to have more technological tools at their disposal to help protect citizens from criminals and natural disasters, as well as terrorist attacks.

Officials equate the current situation to the Year 2000 date change, which forced governments to update strategies and upgrade deficient equipment, laying a foundation for e-government. Today, e-government initiatives are a foundation for better homeland seccurity, said Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc., the technology division of the National League of Cities (NLC), the National Association of Counties and the International City/County Management Association.

The Year 2000 problem, for example, prompted governments to throw out 286 MHz and 386 MHz machines and buy Intel Corp. Pentium-equipped computers running Microsoft Corp. Windows, which are both necessary for e-government, he said. "The preparation we've made for e-government — portals and seamless relationships with customers and so on — will, I think, be the building blocks for homeland security."

Toregas argued that effective homeland security will have to be done at the local level and that e-government initiatives can be an effective tool in those homeland security efforts.

"You can't secure the nation from Washington [D.C]. You can't even secure the nation from the state capital," Toregas said. "You have to secure the nation at the local level, at the water ponds, at the bridges, at the fields. Those are the responsibilities of local government. And that's why homeland security, in order for it to be effective, has to start by being defined as a series of decentralized action nodes with perfect information links."

But it won't be easy. Information has to flow seamlessly up and down the organizational chain, something that has not yet been achieved.

NLC President Karen Anderson, mayor of Minnetonka, Minn., said homeland security and e-government feed off each other. "E-government is certainly advancing the ability of cities to connect with citizens and get information out to citizens, keeping citizens informed quickly on homeland security issues," she said. The terrorist attacks "and now the new emphasis on homeland security, [are] encouraging and giving an incentive to local governments that were considering doing more with e-government.

Mayor Scott King of Gary, Ind., also said e-government initiatives are a way to advance homeland security efforts. For example, he said that he and the city's police and fire chiefs recently met with a technology company specializing in data compression for public safety issues. He said such technologies coupled with, for example, geographic information systems data could help support public safety and other governmental functions.

Mark LaVigne, spokesman for the Center for Technology in Government (CTG), an Albany, N.Y.-based applied research center, said e-government initiatives had pushed state and local governments to focus on creating solid and reliable infrastructures, common standards and better business practices. Homeland security is accelerating and intensifying the importance of those practices.

But more work still needs to be done. CTG recently surveyed municipalities in New York and found that most were working on e-government initiatives, but few were working together or sharing useful practices. Furthermore, many were still at the information stage in terms of their Web sites.

Yet all officials said e-government and homeland security at the local level will suffer without federal financial assistance, forcing local officials to prioritize their programs.

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