Turbo-Charging E-Government

It's been 12 years since the U.S. government went online.

by / June 12, 2006
It's been 12 years since the U.S. government went online. The first stage of e-government meant a passive presence on the Web based on information, but not citizen interaction. The public sector evolved to the second stage: developing Web applications that allowed individuals to interact with government, such as paying parking tickets and renewing drivers' licenses.

But most governments have been slow to move to the third stage of e-government -- creating functionally oriented, citizen-centered Web presences by breaking down bureaucratic barriers. Too often, existing e-government applications are user-unfriendly, designed around agencies' needs rather than citizens'.

Some in government have pushed hard to get to stage three, but all too often, they've faced stiff resistance. By their very nature, governments have a hard time building applications that link together multiple agencies and programs, and an even harder time linking applications that cut across levels of government.

Few agencies see their job as helping users solve problems or access information, including information from other related agencies, other levels of government and even private-sector players. Rather, the default attitude is to present only their agency's information and applications. As a result, it doesn't appear that governments acting alone will any time soon make the kinds of fundamental changes needed to bring about true citizen-centered e-government.

This does not mean citizens must be permanently consigned to often frustrating Web interactions with the public sector. Governments can move beyond engaging with the private sector as e-government vendors and instead empower third-party, for-profit and nonprofit organizations as partners in the provision of e-government services.

Government and the private sector have already engaged in successful partnerships in numerous areas. One of the most widely used is tax preparation and filing. A host of companies, including H&R Block, Intuit (maker of TurboTax software) and TaxAct, have used software to simplify the complicated task of filing taxes. Because these firms are competing intensely for market share, they have strong incentives to make their programs as user-friendly and comprehensive as possible.

Americans filed more than 68 million federal tax returns in 2005, exceeding 50 percent of all returns for the first time, according to the IRS. Moreover, because of the recently created FreeFile program, which lets certain taxpayers (e.g., low- and moderate-income taxpayers) use free online versions of these programs, many more taxpayers can now take advantage of these tools.

It's time to build on this model by empowering for-profit and nonprofit organizations to help citizens and businesses interact electronically with government, particularly in areas that are inherently complex or involve cross-agency and cross-government functions.

To do this, governments must think of themselves less as direct providers of e-government services and more as enablers of third-party integrators that tie together multiple agencies across multiple levels of government to package information, forms, regulations, and other government services and requirements in user-friendly ways.

Moving to this "turbo-government" model has the potential to dramatically boost the uptake of digital government services, cut costs for both government and users, and make the experience of dealing with government less frustrating. Intermediaries can play a key role in two kinds of tasks: building and operating function-based portals, and creating digital integration tools.

Function-Based Portals
It often makes sense to organize information by function rather than by government agency or jurisdiction. State and federal governments have developed some subject-specific portals, and while they are an improvement over agency-specific sites, most are not as user-friendly as they could be.

A number of nongovernmental sites, however, have developed cross-jurisdiction, customer-focused applications that extract information from thousands of governmental organizations into a system that brings consistency to data across many dissimilar providers.

One is Earth911.org, a nonprofit organization established to empower citizens with community-specific resources necessary to improve the environment, including recycling. As a comprehensive portal, Earth911.org receives environmental information from 10,000 localities across the United States, and allows residents to enter their ZIP codes to locate disposal/recycling sites for more than 250 items such as used oil, old tires, grass clippings or outdated medicines, and where to find electric vehicle charging stations.

Other groups have developed other applications. For example, VolunteerMatch.org, onlinevolunteering.org and serviceleader.org provide listings of tens of thousands volunteer opportunities throughout the nation.

The potential of third-party portals to integrate a wide array of governmental (and nongovernmental) information is enormous, and has barely been tapped. Take boat registration for example. While it should be a simple task, registering a boat can be quite complicated. The evidence can be found on boating Web sites, which are filled with queries from boat owners asking how to register their boat.

Depending on the state, the answers vary widely. Some states require an inspection; some require payment of local county tax and state registration fees. In Texas, registrations are handled by the Parks and Wildlife Department, and in Virginia, by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Some boats, depending on their size and use, must be registered with the federal government. The process would be much easier if a national organization of boat owners were a portal for boat registration.

Other areas are ripe for digital integration. Imagine if a third-party provider created a site like Recreation.gov (a federal e-government Web portal) and structured it so that all federal, state and local government, and private recreation facilities were listed on one site. The site could contain a vast array of recreation resources (e.g., bike paths, golf courses, etc.), making it much easier for citizens to find the kind of activities they are looking for.

It could provide one online reservation service for most facilities. It could develop an interactive Web site providing citizens with information about each recreation site (including photos, videos, historical documents, printable U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps, etc.), and a place for visitors to post comments, upload their own photos of the park and ask questions. To make this happen, the National Park Service and state recreation departments could enable other organizations to make use of their data, such as park information and location, and ability to link to online permit and reservation systems.

These types of integrated approaches offer several advantages over the more dispersed and agency-centric approaches usually taken by governments. First, they include an assortment of resources, not just those from one agency or level of government. Earth911.org, for example, includes information not only on local government recycling programs, but also on local civic and other private-sector recycling efforts.

Second, these portals can achieve national scale and critical mass that makes them sustainable over time. For example, billions of motor oil containers currently bear the Earth911 logo or the www.Earth911.org call to action.

Third, these organizations, whether for-profit or nonprofit, are often nimble and nonbureaucratic, and can exceed government expectations by avoiding the significant bureaucratic restrictions that slow down online government efforts.

Radically Simplified
Nongovernmental organizations can play an important role in developing digital tools to simplify complicated and paper-intensive interactions with government. In some cases they will need government funding to ensure a sustainable business model. In other cases, they may only need access to government data and a customer marketplace will provide a revenue stream that allows the services to be self-supporting.

Perhaps the most prevalent e-government application is tax preparation software, as discussed earlier.

Third-party integrators could create software and Internet applications to help citizens deal effectively with government in a variety of areas. Individuals and businesses could enter their location and other relevant information, and the software tools would automatically generate all the applicable forms for all the government agencies (including local, state and federal). "Wizard" software could guide individuals through processes by asking them questions, and depending on the answers, help people fill out the required forms.

These programs would allow people to automatically file forms to the appropriate government agencies. Such "turbo" tools could radically simplify the process of dealing with government, providing savings to citizens, businesses and government.

From paying taxes to complying with regulations and information requests, local, state and federal governments impose extensive requirements on businesses. In particular, government-reporting requirements weigh most heavily on small businesses that have fewer resources to easily comply.

Most of these requirements are ripe for re-engineering and integration by third parties using software and Web tools. Using turbo-charged e-government services, businesses could determine exactly what local, state and federal regulations they are subject to, and allow the software tools to complete and file all regulatory compliance forms, from Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements and Department of Labor wage and hour rules, to environmental regulatory compliance and reporting to federal statistical agencies.

For example, software could let importers and exporters automate and integrate their information-reporting requirements, which can extend to as many as 104 different federal agencies or bureaus. Software could guide individuals starting a new business (or a nonprofit organization) through the complex process of filing the required local, state and federal forms, saving them thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees and hundreds of hours. The Canadian government recently created a private foundation to create and administer such a program for Canadian entrepreneurs, according to BizPal: Streamlining Permits and Licenses.

Software could let builders and do-it-yourselfers easily obtain building code information and file permits, and let professionals in the 46 state licensed professions apply for and renew their licenses. In short, widespread use of such software tools has the potential to not only let businesses spend significantly less time and money on complying with governmental rules and requirements, but also in boosting compliance with regulation requirements that would then be easily understood.

There are a host of citizen-to-government applications as well. From buying a home to dealing with Medicare or becoming a citizen, individuals are required to engage in relatively complex, confusing and paper-intensive governmental transactions. Software tools could simplify most of these tasks.

For example, the process of buying and selling a home could be re-engineered using software. Currently homebuyers or sellers must complete myriad paperwork --Housing and Urban Development; local tax forms, title insurance, settlement, etc. This is one reason relatively expensive real-estate agents and attorneys play such a large role in the process, according to Modernizing Home Buying, a Progressive Policy Institute report from March 2003. However, wizard expert system software could guide individuals through the process and automatically file forms electronically.

These tools could be used in any areas where citizens must navigate complicated bureaucratic processes. For example, a health insurance software tool could let companies and individuals deal with government health-care processes such as Medicare, Veterans Affairs and Medicaid. A citizenship and immigration tool could streamline the process of applying for a green card or becoming a citizen. Software could streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid process of qualifying for a student loan.

Software, similar to the type used in tax preparation, could radically simplify adopting a child. Prospective parents could enter their information, including the jurisdiction in which they live, and complete and electronically file all the relevant local, state and federal forms. While adoption agencies would still need to be involved, such a program would cut hundreds of hours -- and thousands of dollars -- from the process.

Proactive Policies Needed
Without governments taking a proactive step, this next stage of e-government is likely to be stillborn. There are numerous actions governments should take.

At the national level, the president should create a White House entity, perhaps akin to the National Partnership for Reinventing Government in the Clinton administration, which is charged with identifying digital partnership opportunities, working with agencies to ensure data is available, and where appropriate, securing funding for new integrated e-government applications.

At the state level, governors should empower CIOs to integrate state and local service delivery online. Collectively state CIOs working through NASCIO could help intermediaries develop cross-state e-government applications.

These offices should work with agencies to ensure governments readily provide information to third-party information integrators and others. "Once the data elements, business processes, and business rules of a governmental process or form have been defined, documented and published, anyone can do the work of government through a customer agent, commercial service or software product," said former Iowa CIO Richard Varn in The Sawyer Principles: Digital Government Service Delivery and the Lost Art of Whitewashing a Fence, a report by the Center for Digital Government.

This open standards process means that governments should define this information and make it available to third-party integrators and others. While this can sometimes be a big job, doing the task can also provide governments with important benefits, including learning to streamline and re-engineer their own processes. In addition, governments should structure their own electronic processes to accept transactions filed through third-party sites.

Governments should provide funding when there is no likely commercially viable business model for an application, but where there is a clear public need. Most e-government applications are unlikely to be provided by the market without some government support. Yet this need not cost government more money. Indeed, the most cost-effective approach may be to have a third party develop one application rather than have each individual government reinvent the wheel.

Finally governments should also ensure that third-party digital integrators employ effective security and privacy measures to protect citizen information. Third-party systems that collect personally identifiable information about citizens will only be trusted if the rules governing the use of that information are strict, clear and enforceable.

Overcoming Incentive Deficits
It's time to take advantage of IT's power to simplify and streamline interactions with government. The challenge is not technology; the tools exist today to make interacting with government relatively easy. The problem is that government agencies and legislatures have little incentive to move to the third stage, and in many cases, they resist taking the next steps of creating a true technology-enabled citizen-centered government.

Achieving that vision will require that government engage in partnerships with the private for-profit and nonprofit sector to help them fully utilize these next-generation tools that are already working effectively.