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Leading with his chin
Stephen Goldsmith pioneered early e-government solutions the hard way - one mistake at a time

dg.02002 Convenes
stephen goldsmith, photo by mack reed - USC/ISI

Stephen Goldsmith - a Kennedy School professor and Bush administration advisor on faith-based initiatives - told of his work pioneering e-government as mayor of Indianapolis.

Digital government innovators can't just slap dysfunctional systems online, Stephen Goldsmith of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government told the Digital Government conference Wednesday. They must marshal technology to transform the way government operates.

"There is no government reform without digital government, and there is no e-government without government reform," said Goldsmith, keynoting the closing day of dg.o2002.

Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, and current advisor on faith-based initiatives to President George W. Bush, is professor of the practice of public management at the Kennedy school. In his work as mayor of Indianapolis in the 1980s, Goldsmith's pioneering digital government solutions to the city's child support system drove collections up from $900,000 to $38 million.

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But Goldsmith said he made many mistakes along the digital government trail - mistakes that illustrate the complexities of technology-based reform. For example, after automating the child support phone system, and receiving 6,000 calls the first night from mainly poor women on AFDC, Goldsmith was emboldened to add a dial-in option for court filings. No one used it; the lawyers could charge more for paying messengers to hand-deliver the papers than for phoning them in, Goldsmith said.

The artificial intelligence learning system to help prosecutors make charging decisions was also a bust; prosecutors thought it undercut their discretion, Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith privatized drainage permits, reducing wait times, but not by enough: He phoned the engineering firm with the contract to ask if that was the best they could do. No, the president answered, "But you didn't ask me to fix the system." Lesson learned: Outsourcing an archaic system won't necessarily bring about reform.

Then there was the zoning permit office Goldsmith digitized, only to return to find the clerk still demanding three paper copies of every zoning planning map.

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"If you don't - late at night - put a stake through the heart of the old system, it will live on to emerge at weird times," Goldsmith commented.

Successful programs break down hierarchical structures, and make work more rewarding for employees, Goldsmith said, citing Indianapolis sanitation workers who demanded email so they could collect user complaints without having to go through their supervisors.

Technology can also play a role in government integrity, Goldsmith said. The thousands of volunteers for the Americorps service program sometimes screw up their time cards; why not replace inspectors generals ferreting out the mistakes with digitized work cards for the workers to swipe to tot up their hours automatically?

Information itself can be a powerful enforcement tool, Goldsmith said. "Rudy Guiliani made New York's restaurants cleaner by putting code violators online than by adding 500 inspectors," Goldsmith said.

And it can make government more accountable, Goldsmith added, describing an Indianapolis plan to make police read citizens' emails in order to pick up their court assignments in the morning.

During a brief Q & A after the talk, Goldsmith conceded that the privacy question in digital government has not been solved, that private companies can botch services as badly as government - or worse - and that government has a responsibility to close the digital divide before centering reform on digital technology.

Still, Goldsmith remains optimistic.

"We have barely touched the digital world's abilities," he said. "More good has been done in the last 18 months than the first 15 years."