The digital big bang

In FCW’s 20 years, nothing has changed government IT more than the Internet. Here are five ways the Web changed our world.

The days of the wild, wild Web hold a special place in the memory ofW.Hord Tipton, former chief information officer at the Interior Department.He remembers his role in creating a Web site on which people could adopt wild horses and burros from the government. That happened more than 10 years ago when he was Eastern States director at Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Tipton then saw the value of the Internet as a business tool that could speed procedures for delivering horses and burros to eager cowpokes.

“Before the Internet, you almost had to have point-to-point connections to the customer to get to the point of delivery,” Tipton said. But with the Internet, BLM could use one electronic transmission to inform all parties about delivery logistics, he added. It was much simpler and cheaper.

The Internet forever changed federal operations, for better and for worse. The upside is increased government efficiency and transparency. The downside includes privacy and security problems on an international scale, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president at the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group that represents IT companies.

Federal officials have been eyewitnesses to at least five ways in which the Internet transformed the federal government.

1. Bringing systems together
Interior, like many federal agencies, plans to consolidate all its financial
and business management platforms. That’s about 152 information systems, including those used for managing property, acquisition and grants operations.

“The reason we have those 152 systems is because we didn’t have the Internet,” Tipton said. Interior was focused on creating direct connections to customers and operations centers, not on interoperability, he said.

Consolidating older systems will help Interior save money and reduce the time it spends delivering business management systems to each agency, Tipton said.

The consolidation of IT assets, however, has not yet reduced demand for federal building space, said David McClure, a research director at Gartner’s government group.

“You don’t see a closing down of physical facilities in government,” he said. “We’re maintaining a physical as well as a virtual service delivery.”

The Social Security Administration and the Veterans Benefit Administration, for example, still maintain offices in almost every city and in every state. The government’s transition to common Web applications for major line-of-business transactions has been slow, McClure said.

“Those are tougher areas because they involve many more complex processes and more entities as opposed to a common payroll system,” he said.

2. The Web cuts red tape

Open government proponents fondly remember the Clinton administration
as the heyday for government information on the Web.

“With the Clinton administration’s rhetorical push towards openness, there was this incredible flowering of activism by government civil servants,” who published information on the Web that had never been easily accessible before, said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, made databases and analyses publicly available on the Web for the first time.

The amount of information available online snowballed. In March 1995, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, now the Department of Environmental Protection, established the commonwealth’s first Web site and later became the first environmental agency to post compliance information.

The Internet opened state governments and the EPA to greater public scrutiny, said Kim Nelson, who was senior manager at the Pennsylvania agency at the time.

“It did change the way our own staff had to function,” she said. “They had a real obligation, once we did inspections, to ensure that they were performing their duties.”Nelson later was the state agency’s chief information officer and then the EPA’s CIO until leaving government in 2005 to become executive director of egovernment at Microsoft.

“By exposing so much information, it drove agencies to ensure that that information was of a higher quality,” she said.

Government Web sites are much more interactive now than they were in the early days of static data charts and graphs, Nelson added.

Phone calls and faxes could soon become obsolete means of conducting government business.With e-mail and high-speed Internet access, citizens and federal workers have come to expect speedy responses from the government.

“We still collect fax numbers from members, and I sometimes wonder why,” Grkavac said. Congressional campaign organizations are the only government-related operations that still use faxes, she added.

Relying on the Internet, people can acquire passports in a matter of days rather than weeks. Getting a driver’s license is no longer an all-day affair, Grkavac said. “You can look online, to see how long the wait is at the DMV, and go when the lines are short,” she said.

A 2004 Pew Internet and American Life Project research report states that 77 percent of Internet users — that’s 97 million Americans — have used the Web to get information from government agencies or communicate with government officials.

3. Agencies slow to grasp security risks
With the Internet’s openness came new data security and privacy risks.

When the government stored data on individual servers and in filing cabinets, managers could use physical security at those locations to safeguard sensitive information, Tipton said. Government managers now must know how to implement cybersecurity to protect information. They must think logically and logistically.

“We have made it so easy to put information out,” Tipton said. But the job of screening, protecting and ensuring that “the right things are transmitted across those streams” is more difficult, he said.

The government’s failure to safeguard sensitive information could undermine important federal programs, such as the census, McDermott said. Privacy violations could weaken public trust in the government’s use of personal information and could dissuade people from providing census data or other information that the government legitimately needs.

The Internet and the proliferation of handheld computers have necessitated new security training for employees. “People don’t realize how much of a threat these devices can be and will be in the future,” Tipton said. “You can’t believe how many screams you [hear] when people are told they have to have a password on their BlackBerry.”

Besides offering additional employee training, the government has responded to the problem of Internet security by setting a mandatory deadline for agencies to start using IPv6, the next-generation IP. One of its features is greater security.

“It’s an example of where the Office of Management and Budget and the CIO Council have come together to move ahead of the private sector,” Grkavac said.

4. TMI
Some people blame the Internet for a state of mental confusion induced by too much access to information, Tipton said, suggesting another downside of the Internet.

With so much information at their fingertips, people often cannot make decisions any better than they could with too little information, he added.

In the Web’s formative years, in about 1996, government Web sites contained simple pages with pertinent information on basic topics such as taxes and how to reach government officials, said Steven Clift, who is board chairman of E-Democracy.org, a Web site that promotes articipatory democracy.

Now, “a lot of the government portals have so much information that they make it difficult to find what’s important or to know what’s important,” he said. A good search engine can often help users find the needed information more quickly than browsing an agency’s Web site, he said.

5. Internet could enable direct democracy
The Internet had more of a transforming effect on bureaucracy than it had on democracy, in the view of political activists such as Clift. In many ways, the power of the Internet is still untapped, he said.

The information flow between the government and the public is still mostly one-way on the Web, Clift said. Federal agencies have only begun to experiment with wikis and other social networking technologies that pundits refer to as Web 2.0.

But people could benefit from even simple innovations, such as a Web portal that lets citizens subscribe to notifications about upcoming hearings and newly posted congressional testimony, Clift said.

“We’ve done a good job with access, but ultimately people don’t know about things when it matters,” he said.

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