A CENTURY AGO, STARRY-EYED Progressives sought to remake government in the image of a private sector revolutionized by technology. America had transformed herself from a sleepy agrarian nation into a roaring industrial powerhouse. Through mass movement of goods, railroads introduced business management procedures to corporations run by new managerial classes who used telephones, telegraphs and typewriters to master an ever-expanding data flow. The nation embarked on an efficiency campaign led by people like Frederick Taylor, whose “scientific management” advocated finding the “One Best Way” to do everything from growing roses to shoveling coal. Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson wondered why Americans couldn’t apply the new rules of industrial efficiency to government as well. Thus, the government-as-machine metaphor was born.
Today’s governments are relics of that Progressive era. They are built for an economy and society that have largely disappeared. In the private sector, mass production is giving way to personalization and customization. The “One Best Way” mentality is yielding to individual choice and personalized services. The organization man is being displaced by the free agent.
Public bureaucracies, by contrast, with their vertical information flows, rigid practices and strict division of labor, are still organized according to the top-down models created for the industrial economy. As government has grown, its procedures, structures, and controls have become ever more complicated and elaborate. Until only recently, the main function of technology in government was to encode outdated procedures in software and run them on huge mainframes.
The machine-age model that’s epitomized the public sector for the past 100 years is in dire need of a makeover. In the parlance of computer software programs, it’s time to upgrade from Government 1.0 to Government 2.0. The Progressive Era, “Government 1.0” in this manner of speaking, gave us the civil service system, the city manager, independent public authorities, administrative agencies, and the Federal Reserve. Our own Information Era requires similarly sweeping changes, many of which involve unmaking much of what the Progressives wrought.
A New Way of Thinking
In the last years of President Clinton’s second term, and during the presidency of George W. Bush, in city halls, statehouses, schools, federal agencies, and at election booths, we began to see the first stirrings of the public sector applying digital technology in innovative ways. Vowing to achieve “friction-free government,” Pennsylvania officials used e-government tools to reduce dramatically the number of forms new business owners were required to complete. Florida Governor Jeb Bush opened an online high school.
The New York City Police Department installed kiosks where 35,000 low-risk probationers could use hand scanners to prove that they were still in town, leaving probation officers free to focus on higher-risk cases. In late 2002, Congress passed the E-Government Act, designed to accelerate the federal government’s digitization.
Yet this first stage of digital government, by and large, meant merely putting a pretty face on a slothful, clunky edifice. Most of the public sector has yet to be transformed.
Today’s technologies can play a crucial role in fixing the problems of modern government, changing how we get to work, how we pay our taxes, how we register our businesses, and how our kids learn. For example, by tying together different computer databases and facilitating the quick exchange of information, technology can help tear down the walls between government agencies. By cutting the operating costs of government—for activities ranging from processing taxes to delivering benefits—e-government can return huge savings to taxpayers. By slashing the costs of regulatory compliance, digital tools such as electronic permitting and reporting could potentially return billions of dollars in lost productivity back to the economy.
By opening up the cloistered world of bureaucratic regulation-making, electronic rulemaking can offer ordinary people access to a degree of information and individual influence hitherto accessible only to the most powerful citizens. And while the Internet won’t “save” democracy, digital democracy and online campaigning do have the potential to bring back democracy’s rich history of vigorous public discourse, updating the agora and the town meeting for the digital age (picture online democracy forums where the guy who runs the Jiffy Lube can talk with the mayor about leash laws) and turning your computer into a no-lines, no-bureaucrats government office (or even, someday, a polling place).
And then there’s the matter of using the Internet to open up government to create greater scrutiny by regular citizens. They want to see the full picture, the one that includes the recent surge in the rat population and the slacking sanitation crews. Achieving real transparency is about much more than just slapping a few friendly stats on a public Web site. This requires a total mindshift— one in which public officials permit successes and embarrassments to be both online and searchable. Sound utopian? In fits and starts, it’s already happening.
The failure to fully imagine how to make the best use of new technologies is unique neither to government nor to modern times. Throughout history there has almost always been a lag between the introduction of a new technology and its transformative use. Case in point: the nearly 1,570-year lapse between the Alexandrian Greeks’ invention of the steam engine around 200 AD, and James Watt’s 1769 brainwave about what to do with it.
New technologies also don’t automatically raise productivity. It took years after electric power was introduced for productivity gains to materialize. More recently, during the 1980s and 1990s, economists continually spoke of a productivity paradox: no one could find any evidence that the billions of dollars companies were spending on IT was having any affect on productivity. As University of Chicago economist Robert Solow famously quipped: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”
It was not until the late 1990s and the early years of this decade that productivity growth from IT investments finally started to materialize, climbing to 3 percent in 2000, holding at nearly 2 percent during the 2001 recession, and then soaring to more than 7 percent in the summer of 2003. The reason for the lag: it takes time for companies to figure out how to reorganize their operations in order to fully reap the benefits of new technologies. Government has been especially slow to realize the full potential of digital technology.
Every great shift has unintended consequences, and the transition from Industrial Age to Information Age government is no exception. Even as they promise better, more responsive, and more participatory government, information technology enabled changes also pose difficult new questions whose answers will likely define life in a 21st-century democracy.
Least predictable are the implications of many of today’s advanced technologies on personal privacy, a debate that has only heated up as the nation remakes its domestic defenses to combat the terrorist threat. Biometric technologies such as thumb-print, iris and facial recognition, along with neural network pattern recognition systems and increased government data-sharing all offer astounding new law enforcement capabilities —in fact, they are fast becoming the new weapons of choice for the military, the police and intelligence agencies. But these digital tools also raise the prospect of an Orwellian 1984-style society. Already, 80 percent of America’s 19,000 police departments are using surveillance cameras; coming soon are robot cams and “Smart Dust.”
The dangers to privacy from some of today’s technologies are real. Few Americans want to live in a society where government tracks our every movement, in-depth profiles of every citizen reside in giant federal databases, and we’re subjected daily to a form of electronic strip search. But the answer shouldn’t be knee-jerk opposition to every government attempt to use technology that could potentially be abused.
Take the 2003 congressional ban on the Department of Defense’s “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) research program. TIA had sought to improve information sharing in the fight against terrorism by developing software that would search through billions of transactions to look for patterns of terrorist activity by linking government databases in real time to one another and to certain private-sector databases to which government investigators already had access.
To be sure, there are some grave privacy risks in an approach like TIA, but rather than weigh these risks against the benefits to security and then adopt safeguards and restrictions to prevent abuse, Congress chose to bar any and all deployment of TIA-derived technology by any federal agency. This approach, the blunt instrument of a total ban, reflects a failure to update our thinking to correspond to new Information Age realities. We protect our liberties not by prohibiting government agencies from using the latest technologies, but through our system of checks and balances, our Constitution, and our Bill of Rights. In our increasingly security-conscious world, the key to protecting our privacy is identifying and promoting the technological, legal, and cultural practices that allow us to reap the benefits of new technologies without descending into a stultifying Big Brother-like world.
Every entrepreneur frustrated by paperwork, every parent who’s sick of being surprised by bad report cards, every commuter stuck in traffic, every activist trying to fight City Hall, and every taxpayer who cares about the future has a stake in modernizing government.
William Eggers is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the Global Director for Deloitte Research-Public Sector, where he is responsible for research and thought leadership for Deloitte’s public-sector practice. This article is excerpted from his new book Government 2.0: Using Technology to Improve Education, Cut Red Tape, Reduce Gridlock, and Enhance Democracy.