No Back Button

A New Mandate to Implement Possibilities

by / September 24, 2002
In a television ad for a national DSL service, a high-speed Web surfer is confronted by the unlikely prompt, "You have reached the end of the Internet. Please go back." Removed from its context, the phrase captures a decidedly pessimistic impulse about the current environment. A small but vocal group of observers contend that electronic government is over, and it is time to try something else.

The back-peddling on the influence of Internet and technology may be an understandable, yet misguided, extension of fear and uncertainty. After all, it has been a noisy year - with a war, rumors of war, corporate governance scandals and the conviction of elected officials cluttering our view.

In the midst of this negative sentiment, The New York Times reminded us, "Given the free fall of technology stocks and the waves of layoffs and bankruptcy lately, now might seem an odd time to say this, but it is true: the digital revolution rolls on, and it may have only just begun." Even had it not been published in The Times, the concept would still be so.

Our challenge is to resist surrendering to those who have already sold into perceived weakness, while avoiding the hyperbolic excesses of the previous dot-com era.

It gets harder from here where digital government is concerned. Much harder. The technological issues are not trivial. But they pale in comparison to those related to business processes, labor relations and workforce readiness, among others, all of which play out against a budget squeeze that, in turn, is informed by a renewed ideological debate over the size and scope of government.

If government cannot start with a clean slate - and it can't - it would do well to embrace whatever advantages it has. Without putting too fine a point on it, if not digital government, then what?

The unease among those who work in and around the intersection of government and technology appears to stem from the collective distractions of geopolitics, the economy and next month's elections. The elections are noteworthy for what they bring, as well as what they take away.

Election day starts the final countdown to the departure of some long-standing champions of digital government. We are in their debt. Most of these leaders have been deliberate in using the force of personality as a catalyst to embrace a potent new idea, followed by the hard work of helping the organization develop new habits that will outlast their tenure.

Still, the early instigators of digital government - the men and women whose work has been documented in these pages for most of the last decade - do not have a lock on the subject. Next month's elections will introduce new players, who will come to their respected offices after having experienced the Internet as citizens. It is also worth remembering that pioneers had no such advantage - they had to make it up as it came at them.

The incoming officials will bring new perspectives and priorities to the act of governing. They will have their own views on how government does use technology, and visions for how government ought to use technology. We should expect them to put their fingerprints on what they inherit. They may even skewer some of what we regard as sacred, which is the natural order of things. To expect otherwise is unrealistic, and perhaps a tad arrogant.

That said, the important conversation has shifted from whether to pursue digital government, as was the case when this effort was new, to the questions of how far, how fast and in what manner we move forward. For all the hand wringing that attends electoral transitions, digital government is inevitable. As a practical matter, there are few viable alternatives to building out the capacity needed for service delivery given the comparative costs of adding staff or capital investments in concrete and steel.

At first blush, the deliberate processes of government appear to be at odds with the disruptive effects of digital technology in collapsing time and distance, as well as challenging assumptions anchored in the printing press. In fact, that disruptive quality remains a cause for great hope in the reformation of government - a rediscovery of public service by disintermediating outdated and arcane processes. Judging by the journey thus far, the inertia is considerable, but we have made progress.

The legacy of those elected and appointed officials who brought us to the dance may simply be a preview of government that gets out of its own way. The outstanding question is whether digital government will realize its potential under new leadership. The only thing out of reach is the back button.
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.