The lofty old rhetoric about how digital technologies will fundamentally remake government is notably absent from most public CIOs' mouths these days. The public CIO job seems to have morphed from a visionary role to a more tactical role. The current line: steady, incremental improvement -- not transformation.

E-government has also virtually disappeared from governors' State of the State speeches -- a far cry from just a few years ago when not talking about it meant announcing you were a political dinosaur. Columnist Tom Davies summed up the prevailing mood: "From the beginning, e-gov was never really on track to produce a revolution in state and local government performance."

The new conventional wisdom is just as wrong as the early e-government hype.

In researching my new book, Government 2.0: Using Technology to Improve Education, Cut Red Tape, Reduce Gridlock, and Enhance Democracy, I spent three years interviewing hundreds of government decision-makers and thought leaders. I became convinced of two things: First, today's technologies can play a crucial role in fixing modern government problems -- changing how we commute, pay our taxes, register our businesses and even how our kids learn. Second, none of this will happen without a fundamental change of thinking. While existing technologies give us power to transform everything from how businesses are regulated to how government protects citizens from terrorism, our thinking hasn't caught up with our tools. We're still trapped in an Industrial Age government mindset.

The failure to fully imagine how to best use new technologies is not unique to government or modern times. Throughout history there almost always has been a lag between the introduction of a new technology and its transformative use. Case in point: Centuries lapsed between the Alexandrian Greeks' invention of the steam engine and James Watt's brain wave in 1769 about what to do with it.

Government will never truly realize IT's transformative benefits until it rethinks and redesigns government systems, service delivery mechanisms and bureaucratic structures to reflect Information Age realities.

Government as Information Broker

Trying to decide which airline will get you to that important sales presentation on time? The U.S. Department of Transportation ranks airlines by on-time departure and arrival records, and posts the information on its Web site. Hoping to shave your monthly electricity bill by switching to a new supplier, but have no idea which to choose? The Texas Electric Choice Web site provides confused consumers of Texas' now deregulated electricity market with neutral information comparing rates, terms and conditions of all potential energy suppliers. Seeking the best nursing home for your aging mother? Medicare.gov publishes rankings of nursing homes throughout the country based on factors like nutrition, quality of life and quality of care.

As these examples demonstrate, governments can use the Web to help citizens make more informed decisions by distributing information they collect about both the public and private sectors. This is one of the most vital roles for government in a digital world: providing accurate, easy access to information. Governments usually collect this kind of information anyway. By making it widely available and packaging it in user-friendly ways, the public sector can facilitate markets, protect consumers and help citizens make important life decisions.

"Government used to view the information it occasionally collected as a means to some other goal: fixing a street or issuing a license," explained Harvard University Professor Stephen Goldsmith. "Information itself now is a product. In a complex society, the Internet facilitates government's role in aggregating and distributing information about access, quality and price."

One successful example of this is school report cards. State governments compile online report cards with data ranging from average test scores to dropout rates and class sizes. The report cards enable parents to make more informed choices about their children's educational options, and the public exposure has caused low-scoring schools to improve performance.

Coming soon are public report cards on hospitals. Residents in Arizona, Maryland and New York now can go on the Web to find out how well hospitals in their state rank across 10 measures of care, including treating heart attacks, heart failures and pneumonia. Eventually this information will be collected for every state and be available on the Web site of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which already provides such information for many hospitals.

Another way to facilitate markets and strengthen accountability is by establishing eBaylike feedback mechanisms, allowing public service consumers to rate various providers and services. For example, if I'm trying to figure out the best nursing home for my grandmother, I could see how state inspectors rated the home, and how families of nursing home occupants rated it in terms of quality of care, treatment and livability. In the highly competitive eBay auction markets, a few poor ratings can bring down much-prized customer ratings. That can cost sellers considerable business from future buyers. Similar public feedback systems could have the same effect on public services.

The Rise of Choice-Based Systems

High-functioning markets require good information about price, quality and performance. Unfortunately for many services funded by the public sector, such as education, job training, mental health services and health care, this kind of information was previously difficult to obtain, if not altogether nonexistent. That's one reason governments took a paternalistic role, contracting with providers on behalf of clients or providing services themselves so citizens wouldn't get ripped off or mistreated.

Regardless of intentions, government bureaucrats, rather than the people obtaining the service, were choosing the providers. That's no model for a democratic society.

Fortunately government's growing role as an information broker effectively demolishes the argument that people lack sufficient information to make these choices themselves. Performance data from government Web sites, covering everything from nursing home operators to trash collectors to schools, could help citizens weigh the various choices made available to them under choice-based approaches. Once clients can go online to arm themselves with information about quality, cost and performance, providers will be more accountable to clients, allowing governments to shift social, health, work force and education services from monopoly to choice-based approaches. Service recipients have the freedom to choose from a range of providers, ultimately giving them more control over their lives.

The shift from control to choice would have several important effects. First, the competition generated by letting people choose service providers in the marketplace should encourage a greater diversity of providers, which in turn would allow a better match between citizen preferences and the services they obtain.

Second, choice offers more flexibility. If an unemployed person likes the service he's getting from a job training firm, he can continue to spend his voucher there. If his experience is unsatisfactory, he can try another provider. Increased competition among suppliers will lead to specialization, as different suppliers focus on meeting different market niches. This would provide a big boost to small, neighborhood nonprofits, which can't really compete with the big, plush, influential charity outfits for government contracts. Neighborhood groups, however, can certainly compete to attract local voucher-holders. Choice systems also can save money by reducing administrative and monitoring costs for the state, which in turn results in lower unit costs of services.

Government's Navigator Role

But choice is only part of the answer. Many people who need assistance are emotionally and psychologically disturbed, or addicted to drugs or alcohol -- sometimes a combination of the above -- and therefore unable to make rational choices about which service providers are best for them. For this population, choice without proper guidance could be a disaster. To rectify this, governments, the private sector and nonprofit groups need to help some people navigate the complex social service, health and education markets, by essentially serving as navigators or agents for clients and their families.

One rudimentary example is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) Web site, which has an online substance abuse treatment facility locator. It enables family members, social workers or the clients themselves to search for treatment centers in any part of the country. Based on answers to a series of questions (location, type of care needed, special requirements -- such as language needs -- and so on), the site suggests several facilities.

Electronic matching systems soon will go well beyond the SAMHSA site. They'll offer a level of personalized assistance that, for example, will allow an unemployed woman battling alcoholism and depression to take her government voucher to a faith-based rehabilitation and job training program close to her brother's home, meeting her transportation needs and her desire for a program that provides the spiritual meaning now missing in her life.

My Government, My Way

The rise of navigators and choice-based systems are just two examples of government's coming transformation from a 20th century assembly-line, industrial-era model to a customized, 21st-century information-era model. This transformation mirrors private-sector trends in which computers and more flexible work processes enable almost infinite customization at little cost increase. Such "mass customization" lets Dell offer its customers 16 million possible computer configurations, while Amazon.com's software imitates the kind of personalized advice you might get from a neighborhood bookseller. The second we click on Amazon.com's Web site, for example, we enter a store designed just for us, where we get individualized book recommendations, a summary of our past purchases, customized messages, lists of recommended books from our favorite reviewers and the ability to purchase almost anything under the sun with just one mouse click.

Why can't government be more like Amazon.com? Why can't we log on to our local government sites and be greeted with schedules for the latest recreation classes that meet our interests, an e-mail link to our council members, and a profile of the latest crime stats in our neighborhood? Why can't we receive e-mail notifications each time a zoning change is made that could affect our property, a crime is committed in our neighborhood, or a construction project begins that will clog our commute? Why can't government Web sites have intelligent digital guides that help us identify and solve our problems, rather than endlessly linking us to more extraneous information?

Right now, you're probably saying: "We already tried that -- personalization, customization, whatever you want to call it -- and it didn't work. At least not for government. It's dead."

It's true that personalization, for the most part, has been fantastically unsuccessful in government. So far, it typically has meant going to a Web site, completing a form, then receiving customized content the next time you log on to the site. The problem is most people don't visit government Web sites enough to make it worthwhile to fill out the forms. Moreover, most of the early personalization tools on government Web sites have been rudimentary -- for example, they almost never involve transactions -- and therefore provide little extra value for citizens and businesses.

This doesn't mean mass customization can't work for government. It just needs to be far more sophisticated and beneficial. "Citizens will be unwilling to cough up their e-mail address and other information until we start really supplying personalized services with a much higher value added," said Lydia Murray, deputy CIO of Chicago.

It's not enough for government Web sites to simply link people to information, offer advice or answer frequently asked questions. Instead, they should focus more on solving problems from the citizen's perspective, providing consolidated services and offering content that reflects citizens' interests. Say you need city hall to clean up the dirty, rat-infested vacant lot next door. Offline, you'd need to fill out separate complaints (and then follow up) with the departments of health, sanitation, animal welfare, transportation and so on. Getting anything done could take months. But online, you would fill out a complaint form that would create a "Vacant Lot Agency." This virtual agency would exist only at the moment you're filling out the complaint. Its job is to assess your complaint and electronically route your problems to all relevant agencies. You could then check your complaint's status anytime.

This kind of personalization is just good customer relationship management (CRM). Private firms have dramatically enhanced customer relationships by using CRM to reorganize service delivery around customer intentions and desires, rather than the organization's internal structures. Using CRM, these firms can manage customer relationships on an individualized basis. When we interact with companies today, we expect to choose from multiple channels to complete a transaction, and we expect each channel to have our relevant information, whether we're at the store, on the Web site or talking to a customer service representative on the phone. When we call the company back in two days, we expect the person who takes our call to know whether our issue has been resolved, and if not, why.

Rising citizen expectations force governments to focus on creating better, more personalized customer experiences. These efforts are still in their nascent stages. Public officials are struggling with everything from how to integrate customer data across agencies without violating privacy protections to how much emphasis to place on e-government capabilities versus telephone call centers.

While there is considerable debate about the means, few argue with the end goal: dramatically improving customer service. Simple things like sending out e-mail alerts when registrations expire or populating online forms with already existing information can add enormous value, especially for citizens and professionals who frequently interact with government -- doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, contractors and small-business people.

Take a hypothetical case of a contractor building a house for a client. Kate, the firm's business manager, logs on to her secure, customized digital gateway to obtain all the building and environmental permits needed from the city. The site prepopulates most of the forms with data she has already provided. After answering a series of questions, she can complete the initial applications in less than 30 minutes. The house is automatically passed off to the tax rolls and an electronic tax filing account is set up. Three months into the project, Kate gets an e-mail to inform her the legislature recently passed new earthquake regulations that could affect her construction project, and the e-mail suggests possible alterations.

Most governments haven't yet reached this level of personalization, but they are making steady progress. Chicago employs three strategies to create more one-to-one relationships with citizens: The city pushes e-mails to residents based on their needs and interests; provides online wizards to help answer regulatory compliance questions; and the city's vaunted 311 system allows Chicago residents to call one number and connect with a wide range of city services. "Once we reach the point where we are pulling and pushing out lots of information, the benefits are huge," explained deputy CIO Murray. "It will allow us to better match services to demand and make better programming decisions."

Chicago's aggressive approach to creating more personalized customer service shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the city over the past four decades. Richard Daley the younger is simply using high-tech tools to better and more cheaply offer the kind of constituent service his father, Richard J. Daley, was legendary for delivering. Consider the 311 system. Once Chicagoans reach a customer service representative, which takes an average of only 13 seconds, they can file complaints, request trash pickup, report potholes or even inquire about whether an upcoming parade will cause their street to be blocked off. And instead of wondering whether their request went into some government black hole, they can track the progress of their service request online -- as can city administrators -- thanks to the sophisticated citywide management information system.

Power Shift

The result of all these changes? A massive power shift from governments to citizens. By arming people with useful information about quality, cost and performance, governments can adopt a less paternalistic approach and shift many programs from monopoly to choice-based models. And thanks to IT's ability to deliver customized services and information at relatively low cost, providers can more easily tailor services to different people's needs, and governments or third parties can match people to the providers and information that best meet their needs and preferences. "One-size-fits-all" government can be transformed into "government you design."

William D. Eggers  |  Contributing Writer