Why do government officials love e-government and hate e-democracy? The answer is implicit in the definition of the question. E-government uses information technology to make government operate more efficiently, often by copying techniques first developed in the private sector. E-democracy uses information technology to make elected officials more accountable to the public.

In the minds of elected officials, encouraging e-government is a win-win proposition. The public loves to cut waste while improving service, and politicians are happy to show that tax dollars are being spent more efficiently.

Encouraging e-democracy is less desirable to elected officials. On the contrary, most of what they do while in office is try to increase their chances for re-election. Consider a politician who has the opportunity to create easily accessible public records of public meetings, including his own roll call votes. The person most motivated to use such records would likely be an opponent who wants to embarrass the incumbent. The incumbent would generally be more than happy to keep history under wraps. Its no wonder, then, that the accessibility of public-meetings records, across all levels of government, is abysmal. The same reasoning explains why introducing free speech and dissenting voices into public meeting deliberation through the Internet has failed to take wing. Why should the politicians, who have iron control over public meeting deliberation, as opposed to newspaper or TV deliberation, want to give up that power?

Politicians are not the only ones with incentives to focus on e-government over e-democracy. Government employees with ambitions to seek higher paying jobs in the private sector see e-government as their ticket; its their chance to partake of the glory associated with the dot-com revolution. And companies that provide e-commerce and other business software find it relatively easy to adapt their products and marketing plans to the government market. Ive listened to dozens of e-government sales pitches to elected officials, but never once heard one that said, "This technology will make you more accountable to your constituents."

Often there is not a hard-and-fast distinction between e-government and e-democracy. Take voting technology. To the extent that improved voting technology reduces governments cost of conducting a reliable vote, it is e-government. But to the extent it systematically influences who votes, whose votes are actually counted or any other variable that affects the translation of voter preferences into public policy, it is e-democracy.

Getting elected officials to act against their own self-interest is not easy. Witness the current fight over campaign finance reform. Politicians are hesitant to change any institution that helped get them elected. Only public outrage and media pressure can get politicians to pass reforms making themselves more accountable to the public.

The same organizations that took up the recent crusade for campaign finance reform now need to take up the crusade for e-democracy, the building blocks of which are more accessible public records, public meetings and public votes.

Legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Senate typifies the way legislators often blend e-democracy and e-government rhetoric, but in concrete actions overwhelmingly focus on e-government. The bipartisan E-Government Act of 2001, co-sponsored by 12 senators, says two of its major goals are: "to enhance citizen access to government information" and "to increase citizen participation in government." But the actual legislation completely excludes reforms to the elective branches of government.

In contrast, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., authored the white paper "The Internet and the Future of Democratic Governance," which has some ideas to rally around, including federal funding of broadly defined e-democracy pilot projects at the local level. Their proposal expands upon the many proposals now in Congress, born out of the presidential voting fiasco, to fund local improvements in voting technology. The goal is to connect in the public mind the obsolete state of local voting institutions with the much more general problem of obsolete democratic institutions. Its not an easy task, but its a worthy one.

J.H. Snider  |  Markle Fellow