Serving the public

This year, I introduced an e-government case study into my section of the required first-year course for public policy students at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The case involved the effort to create a Web-based virtual department of business that would give small businesses information based on citizens' interests rather than agency boundaries or information on government regulations. It gave me a chance to take the students' pulse on e-government. The results were interesting — and generally positive.

I taught this particular class on Tax Day, April 15, so I asked the students to prepare by trying to find their tax forms on the Web. My purpose was to see how knowledgeable they were about the government Web sites that would allow them to find the forms.

As it turned out, the majority of the class went directly to the IRS' Web site, www.irs.gov. The second-largest group (but only half as many as the first) went to Google or another search engine. Every student knew a .gov domain existed. The smallest group — interestingly, virtually all non-U.S. students — went to the federal government portal, FirstGov.

Before class, I also conducted a poll on my course's Web site. I gave students three choices of e-government applications and asked them which they would find most interesting: the ability to comment on proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations online; the ability to get information by ZIP code about whether a location's air quality was in compliance with environmental regulations; or the ability to make reservations online for a national park campsite.

I then asked them which, if any, of those applications currently exist.

By far, the most desired application — 58 percent of student votes — was for pollution information by ZIP code, followed by 32 percent for national park reservations and 10 percent for commenting on EPA regulations.

In terms of what applications they believed were actually available, the ranking was opposite. While 48 percent thought it was possible to comment on a regulation online and 26 percent that it was possible to make a campsite reservation, only 19 percent thought they could get the pollution information. In other words, the students believed that the government was most likely to make available the e-government service they found least desirable and least likely to make available the one they found most desirable.

Finally, while 13 percent of the students thought the government made all three services available, 19 percent thought the government made none available. The correct answer is that all three are currently available.

My students are, of course, not a random sample. They are at Harvard and interested in public service. But their status as future leaders makes their opinions worthy of note. n

Kelman is a professor of public manage-ment at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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