April 03, 2001, 1:12 PM —
E-GOVERNMENT IS TOUTEDby many as the next great American revolution. Beyond the hype, however, is a growing movement in the United States and other countries to experiment with government-by-Internet. More than 220 countries and territories have websites with links to more than 15,000 government institutions. In the United States, a growing number of federal agencies, states and localities have an Internet presence. There are currently more than 20,000 websites offering government information.
However, the current e-government mantra -- focused on digital divides, killer applications and budget savings -- misses the more compelling questions: Will e-government transform how government interacts with the populace or serve as a convenience for busy citizens and civil servants? Are we on the threshold of a digital democracy or merely heading toward constant policy-by-polling and 24/7 surveillance by law enforcement agencies?
IT Is Not a Cure-All
High-priced technologies generally add unnecessary costs to otherwise poorly managed organizations. In other words, before you can get e-government right, you need to get e-governance right. Poor governance cannot be cured by e-elixirs. Computers and Internet access will not undo corrupt, bloated bureaucracies or ineffective public institutions. Indeed, e-government threatens the political status quo. Political elites and entrenched bureaucrats -- particularly in places where government jobs have high profit margins -- may resist.
Disturbing scenarios arise when we consider how nondemocratic governments will adopt, or co-opt, information technologies. Such regimes treat control of information as a political bedrock. Access to information is constrained or rationed by those in power. Ultimately, information access is less an issue of too few telephones and computers. Rather, education and a "culture of information" are the foundations for enriching the information-poor and building e-governments.