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A question of trust


"Defining e-government," [Federal Computer Week, May 8, 2000]

"In Uncle Sam we trust" might not roll off too many people’s tongues today, but federal information technology officials recognize that public trust is a key ingredient for an effective digital government.

In creating the policy framework for electronic governance and access to government information, basic issues that have little to do with technology must be addressed first, government officials, policy analysts and researchers said during the dg.o (DigitalGovernment.Org) 2000 conference held last week in Los Angeles.

The conference, hosted by the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute and Columbia University Digital Government Research Center, demonstrated IT research funded by the National Science Foundation’s Digital Government program.

Some of the mechanisms supporting digital government are the buzzwords of the day — privacy, security, authentication and trust, said Keith Thurston, assistant to the deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Governmentwide Policy. Thurston said "cybertrust" is key to getting citizens to complete transactions with the government online.

Some commercial enterprises, such as, have tried to create guarantees that they follow privacy policies, but when those policies are breached, the companies have backed away from liability, Thurston said.

Government needs to create a strong privacy policy program that guarantees consequences for a breach in policy, he said. Legal recourse for citizens whose privacy is compromised is also necessary to gain trust in e-government, he said.

For government, a lack of trust in privacy or security means the loss of a transaction, Thurston said. The ability to process those transactions will mean huge savings, increased quality and improved services, he said.

For instance, it costs the government $14 if a person requests federal tax forms by phone, $7 by mail and $3.50 by walking into a post office to pick them up in person. By contrast, online requests for those forms cost the government 13 cents.

One of the most difficult struggles in gaining trust will be striking a balance between providing broad access to government information and protecting the confidentiality of personal information, said Katherine Wallman, the government’s chief statistician at the Office of Management and Budget and head of the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy. "We want to achieve a balance among collecting and then using data to make government policy decisions," he said.

Although the public wants unified services from federal, state and local agencies, the privacy concerns that prevent different levels of government from sharing information are obstacles to such efficiency, said Graeme Browning, editorial director, "Briefing the President," at the Internet Policy Institute.

An NSF Digital Government project at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences focuses solely on that debate, said Larry Brandt, NSF’s digital government program manager.

The Council for Excellence in Government also is about to start its biannual poll on public trust in government.

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