Broadening e-gov's reach

Commentary: Digital government has garnered enough buzz that scholars see it as a promising research area

During the past few years, the National Science Foundation has sponsored a project on digital government that has mostly involved funding computing projects. Now it appears that NSF has concluded that resources should go into social science research on digital government.

Under the rubric of research on digital government are such topics as how e-government will affect the delivery of public services, how technology can be applied to creating collaboration among organizations and virtual organizations and how issues of privacy and access will play out in an e-government world.

To explore this new interest, NSF recently sponsored a conference called "Developing a Basic Research Program for Digital Government" at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Most of the 30 people attending were academics, with a smattering of e-government names from inside the Beltway, such as Norm Lorentz, the Office of Management and Budget's chief technology officer, and Jim Van Wert, the Small Business Administration's pioneer developer of a cross-agency Web site that presaged the Bush administration's e-government initiatives.

It turns out that there's already some research in those areas, although it's more a trickle than a flood. For example, a recent dissertation in sociology that studied how people navigate the Web asked subjects substantive questions and observed how they found the answers on the Web.

One conclusion was that government sites were generally more difficult to navigate than private-sector sites. In a discussion of this finding, Van Wert said that few in government get information from the Internet via browsing and querying, so government people often don't pay appropriate attention to navigation issues.

It also turns out that many Americans are unaware there is a dot-gov domain name — when asked a tax question, subjects mostly checked out www.irs.com, a commercial Web site. Interestingly, Air Force and Coast Guard job sites have a dot-com domain name.

One important thing about the conference was the star-studded cast of academic participants.

What was most noteworthy is that none of those big names is known within academia for an interest in information technology or e-government issues in particular. This has two implications. One is that digital government has garnered enough visibility and buzz in the world beyond government and IT vendors that a number of high-profile scholars see it as a promising area for research.

The second is that practitioners will eventually be able to benefit from the insights that are shared when talented scholars turn their attention to important topics. That's good news for our community.

Kelman is professor of public management 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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