Online Government Bringing the Public Sector up to Speed

Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Monday, February 1, 1999

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/1999/02/01/govsites.dtl

Recently, I visited the FCC website to look for a public document filed late last year by Telmex, Mexico’s telecommunications monopoly. At the site, I found nice pictures of the FCC’s chairman and all the commissioners. The homepage even features a nice little video greeting from the commission’s top dog, personally welcoming visitors to the site.

However, when it came to the filing I wanted (concerning high telephone rates between the US and Mexico), I was referred to a Washington, D.C. company called ITS, Inc. Their first question: “Will you be using Mastercard or Visa?” The charge would be five cents per page, plus $12 an hour to locate the document, with a minimum charge of $25.00 per order.

This was for a public document, filed with a public agency, about a matter of significant public interest. (Last time I checked, there were quite a few U.S. residents with friends or relatives in Mexico who might be interested in the information I was seeking.)

This is part of a disturbing trend. In this era of downsizing, many government agencies, like the FCC, are selling off public records for redistribution, either online, through 900 numbers, or in hardcopy forms. Meanwhile, many of the government agencies that have gone online are offering up little more than mug shots of government officials and lists of various phone numbers and snail mail addresses.

The government agencies typically claim they don’t have the funds needed to set up Internet-based systems that make public data available online in user-friendly formats. As a result, for-profit companies are often called in to do the job.

It seems to be a Hobson’s Choice: Either we sell off public data to money-hungry companies who repackage it and sell it back to us; or we put the task of figuring out how to use the Web to improve public services into the hands of our efficiency-challenged government bureaucrats, many of whom haven’t yet figured out how to make their phone systems work.

At the FCC, for example, it’s almost impossible to get online access to certain documents, particularly those the commission relies on to make decisions. Without easy access to those filings, citizens and businesses alike are less able to weigh in with their views and reactions in a timely fashion.

The FCC’s much-hyped website reminds me of the traditional way monarchs communicate with their subjects. Rather than a “reinvented” form of government, as promised by our vice president, the material on the FCC’s homepage is more like an electronic equivalent of “Hear ye, Hear ye.” Only this time, the proclamations come in digital form.

It’s hard to determine which, if any, filings made prior to FCC decisions can be found on its homepage. Locating them requires navigating a confusing array of FTP menus, reminiscent of what most of the Web looked like, say, six or seven years ago.

The only way you can learn what is inside those FTP files is to download them, one at a time. Or, of course, you can go to ITS, Inc. and pay for them.

Here in California, thanks mostly to the efforts of state Senator Debra Bowen, it is now illegal for a public agency to make a deal with any one company to be the sole provider of publicly-owned records. The law came into being after several local jurisdictions began negotiating contracts with private companies who were hoping to sell the data back to us in digital form.

What kind of records? Things like court dockets or schedules, information about traffic fines, or local tax and property records. Bowen’s legislation passed after Sacramento was inundated with a supportive email campaign organized by legendary Mirco Times magazine columnist and Computer Faire founder Jim Warren.

Some of the swift-talking operators behind the aborted sell-off of California’s public records even tried to hide behind the information superhighway fig leaf. Selling off public data to high-tech companies was, they claimed, a bold move designed to make public information more accessible.

It’s kind of like selling off Highway 101 to the Bechtel corporation, and allowing it to be turned into a toll road, on a promise they’d do a better job of keeping the traffic moving.

Senator Bowen’s legislation helped stem that tide here in California. In less enlightened states, like Georgia and Kansas, for example, residents must now pay a government-selected monopoly service provider for online access to certain public records, such as the progress of bills under consideration by their state legislatures.

Those in favor of selling off California’s public records to private companies for redistribution online were, however, right about one thing: It is taking our public agencies much longer to make public information available in user-friendly formats online than might have been the case if profit-motivated companies were running the show. As a result, significant opportunities to improve government services are going by the boards.

Take, for example, the simple matter of a traffic ticket. When I got one recently in San Francisco, for crossing the wrong white line on Market Street, the officer who stopped me wasn’t interested in my explanation that I was momentarily confused about the meaning of the many white lines that crisscrossed the pavement.

After I protested a bit too much, the officer wrote me another ticket, this one for recrossing the same white line after I had realized I was in the wrong lane. Total cost of ticket: $146 dollars. I politely told the officer we’d meet again in court.

But as anyone living in San Francisco already knows, that is easier said than done. Arranging my day in court required two trips to the courthouse and standing in very long lines. After my first trip, I received permission to come back two months later to stand in another line to meet the traffic referee who would decide my fate. All this, of course, or at very least the first part of it, could easily have been handled online.

Some cities are well ahead of San Francisco when it comes to making effective use of the Internet for traffic and parking matters. Los Angeles, for example, has already made information about individual traffic citations available online. I suppose we can take some comfort, though, that things are not as bad here as they are in Las Vegas, where they make you pay extra if you want witnesses at your trial.

The Webby awards provide a telling index of how poorly government agencies are doing when it comes to taking advantage of the Internet to improve services. This year, Webbies will be awarded in 22 different categories, ranging from the Arts to the Weird. (check out this year’s Art award nominees, btw, for a neat glimpse into the future of the ‘Net).

Government agencies, in contrast, don’t even rate a Webbie category. Haven’t the Webbie producers seen all those neat pictures of government officials?

Cost estimates to make California’s local government agencies fully Internet-friendly total in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. Even if Sacramento does budget those funds, however, the way government agencies have performed on the Web so far provides little reason to hope local bureaucrats would know how to properly spend the money.

The $50 million dollar fiasco that resulted when the state tried to implement a new computer system for the DMV is a case in point. Imagine if we had dozens of counties replicating that sorry experience.

There is, however, another way we might proceed. It’s rooted in an understanding that the current debate between the right and the left has left out the middle, where the best solutions can often be found. We need to ignore the Conservatives, who hate government and think it capable of practically nothing except national defense.

But we also need to ignore the Liberals who think government can, using traditional methods, solve our problems. An answer, which is not championed by either of those polarized extremes, is to use private-sector-like incentives to encourage greater government efficiency.

In this case, for example, we might be able to accomplish the entire job of making California’s government Internet-friendly for just $10 million dollars a year.

Let’s have a contest. Each year, the county that does the best job of using the Internet to improve the delivery of services will receive a $10 million dollar grand prize from the state treasury. There would be just one catch: the winning county would have to agree to share their technology with the other counties. If a county wants, they can even cut a private company in on the deal, say splitting the annual award with it should they win.

Some large counties, for whom $10 million dollars is chump change, probably won’t bother to participate in the competition. Others will claim, as they do now, that they don’t have the funds needed to put together a winning Internet presence.

The members of less hard-pressed, or more creative, county boards of supervisors, though, might see winning the contest, or even entering it, as a way to impress constituents. Most counties are already doing some things on the web. A contest, judged by industry experts, would give those local governments a reason to aim higher. Presently, the only incentive they have is to drag their feet and claim poverty, in hopes doing so will win them larger budgets in the future.

All counties, even those that don’t enter the contest, could learn from the winner. Small counties usually deal with the same problems encountered by large counties, just in fewer numbers. The online efficiencies developed and tested in one county would probably scale, at least in some measure, to more heavily populated areas. Eventually, our local communities might even start competing with each other over who has the best menu of online municipal services, much as they now compete over who has the best schools or parks or the lowest crime rates.

Granted, starting a contest to encourage local governments to make better use of the Internet might not make government as user-friendly as Amazon.com. But the more we can get done online, the less time we’ll all have to spend waiting in line. With the right incentives, we might even discover that government can, in fact, get it right.

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