Global Trend or Passing Fad: Putting Government Services Online

Article Summary:
Around the world, government is turning into e-government, as local, state, and federal government entities move more of their content and services onto the Web. Although the public sector lags behind the private sector in implementing Internet technologies, e-government projects have benefited from the lessons of e-commerce pioneers, and many governments now offer interactive, transaction-oriented Web sites. Some governments, as in the United Kingdom, are even experimenting with voting online. In the process, government is undergoing a shift toward a more customer-centric, service-oriented model—a transformation that may lead to profound changes in the way we think about government and democracy.

Rock the E-Vote
One of the most headline-grabbing e-government topics of the past few years has been online voting. That’s no surprise—in the wake of the U.S. presidential election in 2000, many people are eager to replace hanging chads and butterfly ballots with something that’s both easier to use and more reliable. “Obviously, Florida in 2000 was an accelerator toward people wanting more sophisticated election technology,” says Deborah Brunton, vice president of public affairs for VoteHere, a provider of kiosk-based and online voting products (Cisco is a minority investor in VoteHere).

But despite an initial burst of enthusiasm, actual progress toward e-voting has been slow—although interest in other forms of computer-aided voting remains strong. In tests conducted by VoteHere in Arizona, more than 80% of voters liked the company’s computer-based voting kiosk. In Riverside, California, touch-screen-enabled kiosks supplied by Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment for the 2000 election were enthusiastically received, with a 99% approval rating. But voting over the Internet poses additional technical and logistical obstacles:

  • Authentication (making sure voters really are who they say they are)
  • Security (protecting the voting system against hacking attempts)
  • Privacy (to ensure that ballots remain anonymous)
  • Auditability (making sure there is an adequate paper trail to verify the vote)

    “The whole idea of Internet voting hasn’t yet taken off,” says Michele Grisham, practice lead for state and local government in Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG), which advises governments on setting e-government strategies.

    Computer security and cryptography experts are even more skeptical. “The fundamentals of computer science as we know it today won’t make [online voting] secure enough,” says Bruce Schneier, founder and chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security, Inc., in Cupertino, California.

    “Without more secure platforms, it’s not going to happen,” agrees Avi Rubin, a research scientist at AT&T Labs and author of the book White Hat Security Arsenal from Addison-Wesley. “I don’t see platforms secure enough coming into existence in the foreseeable future,” he adds.

    Voting by Touch Screen and SMS
    Still, experimentation with computer-assisted voting continues. In the United Kingdom’s May 2002 elections, 50 townships will offer a variety of high-tech voting alternatives as part of a pilot program. Among the experiments are Web-based voting for citizens living in Swindon Township (where VoteHere is supplying the online voting system) and mobile phone voting via short message service (SMS) in Sheffield. “This marks an important first step toward e-voting across the country,” says local government minister Nick Raynsford.

    For its part, the United States is not without progress. For example:

  • An election reform bill currently being considered by Congress could put $2.65 billion into election technologies.
  • The State of California just passed a $200 million election reform bond to upgrade voting systems in the state.
  • Many counties are already using or investigating voting systems that use optical scanners and computer tabulation to count paper ballots. The State of Georgia has recently issued a request for proposal to upgrade the entire state’s voting systems to touch-screen systems.
  • VoteHere is involved with several states’ pilot projects to offer online voting to overseas military personnel.

    While widespread online voting may be a distant dream, experiments will continue. According to VoteHere’s Brunton, many localities will start with touch-screen voting at their usual polling places, then move touch-screen polls to new locations, such as libraries, courthouses, and even malls. Eventually, Brunton says, this evolution will lead people to become more comfortable with the idea of voting at home via their PCs.

    A Portal into Your Government
    One thing that citizens already seem comfortable doing from home is accessing government services and information. Many states have implemented e-government portals that provide one-stop access to a host of government services, agencies, and departments. “Portals have been really hot for a while. Now most of the states have one,” says Cisco’s Grisham.

    For example, the State of Michigan launched an e-government portal in July 2001. Using the portal, online visitors can make reservations for state park campgrounds, buy hunting and fishing licenses, look up state-certified daycare centers and nursing homes, and get information about local schools. The portal, built by Deloitte Consulting, started with a few basic services. Subsequently, over 150 Web sites from 43 different Michigan agencies are being migrated to the portal’s Vignette and IBM WebSphere-based technology platform, with the goal of completing the migration by May 2002.

    In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Tony Blair has ordered that all government services be available online by 2005. Government ministries have responded with a wide range of online services. For example, a new cyber-court launched in the United Kingdom in February 2002 gives citizens the ability to make debt claims of up to £100,000 online (for instance, a landlord might use the system to sue for rent money owed by a tenant). And participants in court trials in England can get updates about the status of their trials via SMS, e-mail, or pager.

    Just keeping track of all the services and content on an e-government portal is a major challenge. Accordingly, content management software figures large. “Content management is the killer app for e-government today,” says Greg Pellegrino, a partner at Deloitte Consulting and the leader of the company’s global e-government practice. Such software allows nontechnical government workers to update content as needed, while providing a common management platform.

    Government Transformed
    E-government portals are changing the way governments think about providing services to their constituents. A portal can make Web site visitors feel like customers, enabling citizens to focus on the services they’re interested in rather than being forced to negotiate Byzantine government bureaucracies. “It’s definitely the case that we’re in the transition phase from the e-government experimental era to one of much greater interactivity, and a much greater emphasis on enterprise transformation,” Pellegrino says.

    This will eventually lead to the notion of a “seamless government,” says Mark Badger, Ph.D., the international government practice lead for Cisco IBSG. When government processes and services are streamlined, it’s easier to focus on the social goals behind those systems, Badger says. “It’s opening up the process for people to participate in actually building a better society,” he says.

    Seamless government may also make life a little easier. For instance, in Ontario, Canada, the government is implementing a new electronic strategy. Once the new system is in place, when a citizen fills out a police report for a lost wallet, the information will automatically be routed to different ministries so that the person can request a replacement driver’s license, health care ID card, and even fishing license—all without having to fill out any additional paperwork.

    While portals present a simplified front end, governments are also looking for smoother exchange of information behind the scenes. With better information sharing between agencies and departments, it’s easier, for example, for the FBI to alert a state agency that it shouldn’t provide a driver’s license or identification card to a certain person.

    “[Governments] want instantaneous access to information that is in hundreds of databases. The only way you can achieve that kind of integration in any cost-effective way is to leverage Web technologies,” says Cisco’s Grisham.

    Stimulating Development and Democracy
    E-government can stimulate economic development, according to Cisco’s Badger. “On the Pacific Rim, countries such as New Zealand and Singapore are setting up smart e-government environments, so it’s easy to transact business there,” he says.

    If a company can fill out incorporation documents or import/export forms online, that can translate directly into cost savings. The availability of a good underlying Internet infrastructure and of an educated, Net-savvy workforce is also attractive to business.

    Ultimately, e-government may lead to a loftier notion: e-democracy. “The notion of more open access to democracy is a theme for e-government,” says Deloitte’s Pellegrino. In the United Kingdom, the Office of the e-Envoy is charged with not only getting government services online, but also using technology to encourage greater participation in government by the citizens.

    The Hansard Society, a nonprofit organization promoting parliamentary democracy, has worked with the U.K. Parliament in various pilot projects aimed at including more citizens in policy-making decisions. These projects have been well-received by citizens and members of parliament alike—in a recent consultation aimed at collecting input on government benefits, 94% of participants said they would be willing to participate in another such project. But the Hansard Society points out that obstacles remain. For instance, how do you increase citizen access to government via the Internet, when only 32% of British households have access to the Internet?

    One thing is certain: The more services governments put online, the more they are encouraging their constituents to become savvy consumers of those services. Eventually, that may make them more engaged citizens as well. The real question, says Badger, is: “How do you use technology to go from doing things better to doing better things?”

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