Promise of E-Democracy Begins to Take Hold

Promise of E-Democracy Begins to Take Hold

Rick Lazio

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

Shortly after New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani announced his withdrawal from the New York Senate race May 19, a senior staffer for Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., called Trey Richardson at eContributor, a Washington firm that enables online contributions on clients' Web sites.

The staffer wanted eContributor to set up Lazio's Web site to accept campaign contributions. Six hours later, when Lazio announced his Senate candidacy, taking Giuliani's spot, the site was up and running.

Within 48 hours, Lazio had raised $148,000 online. So far, the campaign has raised about $1.6 million online, said Richardson, chief executive officer of the year-old eContributor.

Making campaign contributions possible with the click of a button is just one way the Internet is changing how people relate to government. From enabling driver's license renewals and voter registration to channeling correspondence to elected leaders, the Internet is bringing government closer to the people than ever before.

"The Internet is built for participation," Richardson said. "Governments have been striving to provide citizens with immediate responses to their questions for years and years and years. Now that the Internet is becoming more and more pervasive, they should seize the technology to deliver their services and communicate with their constituents."

It's the interactive nature of the Internet that holds such great promise for improving government services and transforming the relationship between citizens and government. And the latest research suggests that governments are now getting into the e-gov game, big time.

E-government spending is expected to grow 33 percent annually during the next five years, from $1.5 billion to $6.2 billion, according to the technology research and consulting firm GartnerGroup Inc. of Stamford, Conn. The firm predicts that 60 percent of the nation's local, state and federal agencies will conduct some sort of transaction via the Internet by 2003.

The push to enable online government services began a few years ago, but even last year, "e-gov wasn't even really a word," said Nicole Hockin, spokeswoman for EzGov Inc., an Atlanta provider of e-government technology solutions. "Our job was to not only sell our software but to educate government on the benefits of e-government. Now they know it, and they are starting to budget for it."

So far, Americans look favorably upon e-government, the electronic interaction between governments, their employees and the public, according to a study released in September by the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government in Washington. More than 1,000 members of the general public, 150 government officials, and 155 business and nonprofit leaders were surveyed for the report, "E-Government: The Next American Revolution."

Fifty-six percent of the general public and 62 percent of Internet users said they believe e-government will improve the way government operates. Ninety-two percent of government officials and 76 percent of nonprofit leaders thought the same, according to the study.

Americans also said they believe e-government will change not only the way they relate to government as customers, but also as citizens of a democracy, the study said.

Asked to name the most important outcome of e-government, 36 percent of citizens said it would make government more accountable to citizens. Seventy-five percent of citizens said e-government will make it easier for people to get information from government agencies, and 72 percent said e-government will make it easier to communicate with elected officials.

In fact, Americans have already embraced the Internet as a tool to communicate with elected officials.

According to a study released in May by E-thePeople.com, one in eight American households used the Internet to communicate with a government official by e-mail in the past year, and one in 14 American households signed an Internet petition asking the government to make a change.

E-thePeople.com, a 2-year-old government services portal, helps users interact with 175,000 government officials nationwide. The New York company powers the interactive town hall functions of more than 400 newspaper Web sites.

"Anytime you make something easier, more people are going to do it," President Alex Sheshunoff said. "If we can use technology to show people that they can get a neighborhood park swing fixed or a pothole fixed, that gives that citizen the knowledge and confidence to begin addressing bigger questions, whether that's education or health care or the environment."

Making voting convenient by putting it online could also increase civic participation, according to a survey released Oct. 25 by Active Research Inc., a Burlingame, Calif., provider of Web-based market intelligence services.

Of 539 online consumers surveyed, 82 percent said they would vote online in an election, and 63 percent said they would vote in more elections if they could do so online.

So far, however, online voting hasn't caught on. When Arizona tried it in May, a record 78,000 people voted in the Democratic presidential primary. The process, however, was plagued by technical glitches.

"The Arizona Democratic primary got mixed reviews, but the fact of the matter is, you could vote anywhere in the state that day. As people get used to the idea, you'll begin to see more of [it]," said Janet Caldow, director of the Center for E-communities at IBM Corp.'s Institute for Electronic Government in Washington.

E-government still has a long way to go in changing the way people interact with institutions and their leaders, GartnerGroup analyst Mark Smolenski said.

According to GartnerGroup research, 18 percent of all U.S. adults have visited a state government Web site. Of those, 65 percent found what they wanted, and 13 percent said they contacted a state government office through its Web site.

Twenty percent said visiting the Web site replaced the need to call the office.

"That's the really important number that we expect to go up as government gets better," Smolenski said. "The government isn't doing too bad a job so far."

Nevertheless, e-government is still in its infancy, he said. "Individual offices put up their Web sites and a lot of times people don't even know it's there. You compound that by the fact that the site isn't hooked up to a portal. Basically, you've paved a cow path," he said.

Increasingly, governments are linking their Web sites through portals, eliminating the citizen's burden to know where to go online and how to get the information or service they need, Smolenski said. Perhaps the best-known portal is FirstGov.gov, the federal government's one-stop government shop, which launched in September.

"The customer does not have to concern himself with what agency provides the service," when looking for information or services on FirstGov, said Karen Freeman, deputy director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a federal group working to expand the use of e-government.

"We've certainly done an excellent job of providing information, and done a good job with services" online, Freeman said. "The next step is accountability. That is one of the main benefits the public wants."

IBM's Caldow calls FirstGov.gov a good first step. "Clearly, there's been good progress in moving services online," she said. "All of the government agencies are in some phase of planning or development of applications to move them [online] as quickly as they can. [But] I think they barely scratch the surface on how they can change the relationship with government."

In the future, Caldow predicted, e-government will be truly interactive.

"We'll see online public opinion polls and more expanded use of town meetings and Web sites as broadband [high-speed access] hits the Internet," she said. "We'll have TV-quality images. In citizen services, you'll get a customer service representative on your screen."

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