An example to follow

The State Department recently hosted a three-day international conference on "Implementing E-Government." The conference was an eye-opener for many as to the advanced state of play in e-government elsewhere in the world.

More than 300 high-level delegates and front-line practitioners from 40 countries and every continent rolled up their sleeves on a broad range of topics, including e-procurement, e-authentication, increasing citizen participation, measuring results and developing business cases. Government, private sector and nonprofit participants shared lessons learned and found new allies in their efforts to advance e-government in their countries. Top-level leadership, of course, was the most common critical success factor.

Even more interesting was the breadth of the common belief in the potential of information technology to promote democracy and transparency. From Bangladesh to Slovenia, from Brazil to Egypt, it is believed that automating governmental systems has a strong positive impact on two goals: reducing corruption and increasing citizen participation. On the first, one country provided details on a customs processing system, which, through automated management controls and process re-engineering, eliminated the opportunity for individual customs officers to shave payments in exchange for preferential treatment. On the second point, one African delegate observed, "Democracy means more than more political parties. It means more citizen participation. E-government is the means to participation."

A common example is the computerization of land records. In India, a major effort is under way in the state of Andhra Pradesh to map and codify land ownership. As readers of Hernando De Soto's "The Mystery of Capital" understand, the ability to create unambiguous, public title to land is a prerequisite to the successful transition to a modern economy. In Andhra Pradesh, land records go back to before the availability of paper, and in any local region, land boundaries were measured outward from a single point set between two villages. Records were controlled by a small group of officials, feared for their power to make slight variations on an angle.

These and other cases illustrate the challenges that real e-government entails. The threat to existing stakeholders, the opportunity to create transparency and predictability and the leadership needed to press forward on what must be transformational initiatives all confirm the truism that e-government is not primarily about IT. It is about control of information, what former President Thomas Jefferson called "the currency of democracy."

E-government leaders around the world must lead by example, promoting openness in government information as a first principle in their efforts. Otherwise, the technology will fail to live up to its promise, and we shall all suffer from a more efficient, but no friendlier, bureaucracy.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www. mcconnellinternational.com).

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