Earl Baker

Former Pennsylvania State Senator Earl Baker chaired the state's Labor and Industry Committee, advocating information technology for economic development. An exclusive Government Technology interview.

by / November 30, 1995 0
Earl Baker, who served as a Pennsylvania state senator for seven years, chaired the Labor and Industry Committee, where he advocated the use of information technology for economic development. He also served on the Communications and High Technology Committee.
Baker was first elected to public office as a county commissioner in 1975, and served three terms until elected to the Senate in 1988. While in the Statehouse, he represented most of Chester County, a Philadelphia suburb. Baker, who holds a doctorate in political science, has been affiliated with Temple University for 20 years. He is now vice president of public-sector information systems business development for Unisys Corp.


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GT: Besides acting as a manufacturing base, what other roles can information technology play in helping a regional or state economy?

Baker: Well, I think one of the basic things needed is a way to pull together a lot of separate resources. A prospective company, relocating company or expanding company looks for zoning information, subdivision ordinances, local tax practices or tax rates that apply to given counties or given school districts, townships or cities. And surprisingly enough, very little of this information is online, although if you spend a lot of time digging through publications, you can find this sort of thing.

That's one of the things I hope will be done in Pennsylvania. I can use, as a contrast, North Carolina's home page, which enables you to actually click down to the local level in six different economic development districts. To me that's a model of where Pennsylvania and other states should go.

GT: How does this help government serve the residents of the state?

Baker: The state cannot prosper unless it has a thriving economy. Our state is losing its young people to other states, primarily Southern states. You can cut through all the rhetoric about improving the business climate and reduce it to a human equation -- if a state can't attract its young people to stay then it's losing the race for the future. It will not, over the long haul, survive. That says something about the society as well. Do we have a place where young people want to show confidence in the future?

One of the reasons that many of the Southern states have succeeded is because they aggressively provide information at a low access cost to the user. If you are a company in Illinois and you are thinking of possibly relocating to Pennsylvania or North Carolina, Pennsylvania says they'll send you something in three weeks. But with North Carolina, you can click it right up and maybe even do some analysis and have the results that day. Obviously, the agent is going to the place that can provide information easily and with fast access.

GT: How does this fit into the big picture of an area being attractive to younger people?

Baker: Opportunities attract people. You have to look for the connecting factor, which is: Are there future jobs, are there current jobs, can you keep the companies that are here, and can you get to the point someday where companies who aren't here would like to be here?

Right now we're on the downside of that equation, but through using information, through a commitment to policy, that can be changed. In other words, it's not just bad luck that some states end up in one position and other states in another position. It is an accumulation of policy choices that they make that can be changed. They can be changed mildly and slowly or they can be changed dramatically if there is a real political and policy-level commitment to do it.

GT: How can technology impact the continuous evolution of government in general?

Baker: If you think of what government does, it is often the collection of information, the recording of official information, and the compilation of statistics. Yet much of what is collected and maintained by government just sort of sits there in primitive records that are sometimes accessible electronically. Yet the government is often protective of information because, certainly within the departments, there's an awful lot of turf protection in the data that they collect. If government took its role as one of making information available and providing accessibility, we would see a lot more confidence by the public in government.

If there's one thing that characterizes government right now, it is distrust. We sense it and see it all the time -- the party system, Congress, the president, state and local government -- you can't name any one of those that really has a high level of general respect.

If those in government want to be trusted, then I think there has to be much more of an open-door, open-access attitude. If people could get [information] in an easily accessible and usable form, they would be very grateful and, after all, they are the ones providing the information in many cases when they fill out forms. They are footing the bill for government.

As I look at the challenge for public officials, it is to ask themselves "how can we become more trusted, how can we gain people's confidence?" Information will play a very, very critical role. If you look at Newt Gingrich in terms of his attitude of Congress going online -- that to me was a real decision of the future. Until this point, Congress had acted as if information was something you had to eke out and find through some connection and some laborious search. And maybe it was on some tape or in some publication somewhere when it could have been made electronically accessible.

What was clear was that for a new generation of leadership, public accessibility is part of regaining trust. In my experience as a legislator, when I went online, I immediately got a lot of e-mail from people saying it's about time, this is overdue, we've used this at work for 10 years, I'm so glad that I can contact you as a constituent. Many of them are people who probably would have never written a letter, gotten a stamp or gone through that whole process. Yet, they wanted to feel like they could be in touch and I had a wonderful experience with that.

GT: What do you think is the root of the distrust of government? As you said earlier, some of it is warranted, some of it isn't. Could you elaborate?

Baker: One thing is that people perceive government like the blind men and the elephant. They only know the part that they can feel. If the average person felt that they wanted to expand their knowledge of the government beyond the parts that they see themselves or the parts they deal with, then I think that would increase their trust level.

I also think that there is something more than just overcoming a lack of knowledge. There is a sense that government is secretive. Government is not telling them things and we do see this. In some ways it's natural human behavior. If something is valuable you want to protect it; therefore if you take the average department head within government, part of their protecting the jewels of that agency is to keep that information hoarded somehow and to dole it out as they see fit.

I think all of us in our system of democracy are going to get over the feeling that we have to treasure and horde information. I'm not talking about sensitive personal information and security information, but rather the information about the running of the government. Maybe people wouldn't use it everyday, but if they felt that if they needed this information, they could get it, then they wouldn't feel like there was sort of a shroud of secrecy around government.

It calls for a real sea change in the way government people think about information. People provide the information and they're providing the cost through taxes. They are part of that system. It ought to be a free-flow across that artificial boundary that we say is government and non-government. That gives people a stake of ownership, a feeling that what's in there is theirs.

GT: You were in public life for over 20 years. What are some factors that have brought us to this point where people are demanding that this shroud of secrecy be gone, that they are able to access information quickly and effectively and so on? Ten years ago, I would assume that these demands weren't voiced with nearly as much volume.

Baker: You're quite right. I used to teach political science, and one of the things polls have shown is a steady erosion of confidence. People often say it started with Watergate and I would have to agree partially with that. I don't think it's only Watergate, but I do think that did tend to move government as an agency that you sort of trusted to one that you didn't trust, that you were ready to believe the worst about. If the government had been looked at under a microscope, whether it was Johnson, Nixon or any other president, it might have ended with the same kind of situation.

That particular series of events did have a conditioning attitude on a generation of young people at that time who really became skeptical if not cynical about government.

I think other things contributed, too. One was the Cold War and the sense that there are certain things that have to be kept secret and that it was in their interest not to know certain things. And people accepted it. It certainly was a persuasive thing in terms of people's mentality about government.

Part of it too is just pure complexity. Just the fact that government has grown and grown and grown, its intrusions into our daily lives, all extending from well-intended purposes. If you put all those things together -- the Cold War, Watergate, growing complexity and size of government and interdependence of people in this kind of society -- those are the things that contributed to this distrust of government.

And I think it's reached epic proportions. If you look at a Perot-type candidate, someone outside the whole normality of this system, getting one out of every five votes in the last general election, it tells you that people are ready to look in a new direction. One of the things that has come out of analyzing those results is that many of those people who voted for Perot did not agree with each other on a lot of things. They just agreed that they wanted to see a change in the system.

GT: What are some of the ways out of this? As you said earlier, putting more information online is one way to deal with distrust of government. But this isn't going to solve the whole problem.

Baker: People's hostility will decrease as government functions are brought to the states and the localities from the federal level. And you hear that from both parties, it's not just a partisan thing. Part of it is because the budget deficit is huge. An American political philosophy is that the more local officials feel that the public can look over their shoulder, the more cautious they are, whether it's spending money or starting a new program.

They have to be able to interact with the people. I think that is fostered by access in the sense that we talked about already. It brings the scale of analysis down to a level that people are more likely to understand. People often feel very confident expressing opinions about their city, township, or county government because the dollar amounts and the number of people involved and the supposed benefits can actually be seen or are related to things that they can visualize. I think that gives you a greater sense of control. That will, over time, increase people's sense of trust.

GT: By bringing the scale down, do you think they would be more likely to participate not just in elections, but in civic life between elections?

Baker: Yes I do. It's hard to square in our society the history we have with low participation, especially in state and local elections, and the way we are emulated around the world in terms of our system of democracy. That's why if the stakes are increased, if people feel like state and localities matter, then that will increase the participation level.

Government stands on the threshold because technology is able to do many things that traditionally it couldn't do, even when it wanted to. Now they can.

It can also become more responsive. For example, you have a tax collecting system that is not effective and the people who are paying the taxes can rightfully complain that they are paying more because the system isn't working to catch the people who aren't paying taxes. If you can talk about how to get a more responsive and efficient government that will bring everybody to pay their fair share of taxes, then maybe everyone's share will go down a little bit, but everybody will be participating.

Moreover, in terms of the confidence question, people think that their government is trying to upgrade itself to try to be comparable to the private sector and to do things of a business-like quality that government traditionally hasn't done. That will be a confidence factor also.


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