IMPROVING THE IMAGE OF E-GOVERNMENT
Brand names and celebrity endorsements could spruce up e-gov.
By George Lindamood
Ive recently been involved in a project to promote digital government; specifically to help non-IT managers embrace the idea and get started with "digigov" -- my neologism, inspired by "digimon" -- projects. Ive been struggling with how to get non-technical folk enthused about Web-based government. Geeks need little convincing, but those who are somewhat intimidated by e-mail can be a problem.
Curiously enough, the Web itself provides the answer: image. But it doesnt go far enough -- yet. Since image is everything these days -- in fashion, business, sports, etc. -- why not use digigov as the medium for a whole new public-sector image campaign? Im not talking Java pyrotechnics, Im talking designer Web pages. If Steve Jobs can use hot design to sell Apple computers, why cant we use it to sell e-government?
How about an e-government "look and feel" designed and endorsed by Gucci? That might attract the high- fashion set in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. The approach apparently works with the Eddie Bauer edition of the Ford Explorer and the L. L. Bean version of the Subaru Outback. Speaking of which, an Eddie Bauer or L. L. Bean Web page might appeal to Wyoming or Montana. On the other hand, Massachusetts and Rhode Island would probably prefer Martha Stewart.
An alternative would be to follow Steve Jobs lead and engage industrial design firms, such as Frogdesign, to develop a Web page motif. Im sure that Frank Loewy would be interested in doing that if he were still alive. A Bauhaus look and feel would present a much better image than our present gothic government.
That leads me to ponder the involvement of leading architects. After all, Washington is better known throughout the world for Frank Gehrys "Experience Music Project" design than for all the Digital State awards it has won. Although we cant get him to make over all those look-alike capitol rotundas, a Gehry-designed Web page might help citizens see their government in a whole new way. Unlike the rotundas, we could easily change it if we didnt like it or if we tired of it after a few years.
Dallas might go for Gehry, but Frank Lloyd Wright would probably appeal more in the upper Midwest, art deco in Nashville or St. Louis and arts and crafts in Portland -- Maine and Oregon. Other jurisdictions might turn to famous artists, living or dead, for suitable motifs: cubist a la Picasso and Braque in Chicago; impressionists such as Monet and Renoir in San Francisco; Dutch masters in Boston; and Jackson Pollock in Denver. The mind boggles at the possibilities.
Theme Park Government
Focusing on image in this way might have a transforming effect on other aspects of government, as well. For example, political campaigns might be fought on the basis of what the new administrations Web motif should be, which would be at least as meaningful as many of the issues debated in the past year. Or we could extend the concept to the traditional, nondigital parts of government as well, perhaps contracting out the whole megillah to Disney to operate as a theme park. If common citizens can be attracted to government because of its fashion statement as much as they are to blue jeans and Zima, this could engage a part of the electorate that our present dull, dreary, geeky and gothic image cant reach.
Another way to reach the masses might be celebrity endorsements. Think of the panache that Matt Damon, Shaquille ONeal, Bruce Springsteen, Barbara Streisand or Tiger Woods could add to your digigov initiative. We might even enlist impresarios such as Steven Spielberg to put together a whole package: Tom Cruise on the motor vehicle licensing Web page, Madonna on planned parenthood and Arnold Schwarzenegger on gun registration.
Of course, we could also go the way of Yahoo, Eudora and all the rest -- not to mention public schools -- and permit commercial advertising on digigov Web pages. The advantage: Government would receive money for the image enhancement instead of paying it out to designers or celebrities. Also, some would say that it fits right in with our present system of campaign financing. However, I personally find repugnant the thought of the Nike swoosh emblazoned in neon and affixed to the facade of a supreme court building.
Government should take the initiative in picking the image it wants to convey in its digital interfaces and pay whatever price that entails. And while were at it, we should probably include somewhere on our Web sites the following disclaimer:
THIS GOVERNMENT HAS BEEN MODIFIED FROM THE ORIGINAL. IT HAS BEEN REFORMATTED TO FIT YOUR SCREEN.
The challenge will be to come up with an attractive way to say that.
George Lindamood, former CIO of Washington state, is currently an IT management consultant in the public sector and a senior fellow of the Center for Digital Government.