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Is e-government working?
Better than ever, conclude DG researchers wrapping up a massive 5-year study
dg.o Communications Manager

CyPRG: "Hotlinked Governance"

" Home page
" Hypotheses
" Methodology
" WAES criteria
" Data

The growth of the Web is changing government.

This is no facile generalization, but a plain fact that is shaping - indelibly and often for the better - the way democratic governments think about and serve their constituents, Digital Government researchers are finding.

But how effective are most government Web sites? In an era when private-sector dot-coms can deliver everything from instant airline tickets and live auctions to 3-D avatars and pin-point global search, can government sites with limited funding and participation from their own agencies measure up?

The answer is - increasingly - yes, according to "Hotlinked Governance," a 5-year-study funded by the NSF's Digital Government program that is due to be published in the coming months. And in an interesting turn, the research itself is helping to improve some of the very sites it is studying.

Researchers at George Mason University and University of Arizona, Tucson plan before year's end to publish data showing the steady growth in construction and and openness of government Web sites across democratic nations, as well as implications for public effectiveness, and accountability.

The 5-year study by the Cyberspace Policy Research Group (CyPRG) has been measuring the performance of more than 4,000 government Web sites in 192 countries - including sites for the 32 U.S. agencies that handle 90% of the government's online business - and has found some interesting changes in the growth of e-government.

The results of the study are "heartening," says GMU's Todd M. LaPorte, co-principal investigator for the CyPRG team.

"In Europe and the United States there are probably 200 people who are working really hard, with limited means, to do good things" in leadership roles for their agencies' Web sites and online policies, LaPorte says. "It made you feel good ... that it was far from the negative image you often have of government bureaucrats. I was very impressed."

Acceptance of and innovation in e-government technologies have grown steadily in the years since the study began in 1997, according to LaPorte's colleague and co-PI, Chris Demchak of University of Arizona, Tucson.

Once ignored or paid mere lip service, Web sites have been embraced as powerful tools for improving interactions with the public, decreasing agency workloads, extending the agencies' reach and efficiency and - to a much more limited extent - cooperating with other government entities.

"If a civil servant has their ultimate dream on how they could just make [their agency] work better, they're turning to the Web as a way to reach that ultimate dream," Demchak says. "If they can put forms on the Web, they will. If they can have citizens give them that data already typed in via those forms so they can download it to a machine somewhere to work on it, they will. If they can take any publication and put it on the Web so they don't have to put it on paper [or] mail it, they will."

Though CyPRG's work has been exhaustive - in five years, the team has conducted more than 9,000 reviews of government Web sites, including numerous face-to-face interviews with government IT officials in the U.S. and abroad - the methodology is relatively simple:

  1. Build a database of national-level government Web sites
  2. Evaluate the sites for openness and accountability
  3. Survey and interview webmasters to understand the contexts and policies shaping the evolution of their Web operations

CyPRG's "Website Attribute Evaluation System" (WAES) is a survey of 45 questions in five categories that measure "openness" on two basic theories:

  • Transparency - The effort an agency makes to make information available through its Web site.
  • Interactivity - The ease with which visitors can use information provided on the Web site.
CyPRG 2000 radargraphs

" Department of Energy
" Environmental Protection Agency
" Food and Drug Admin.
" Internal Revenue Service
" National Security Agency
" National Science Foundation
" Bureau of Prisons
" Rural Housing Service
" Veterans Administration

Radargraphs derived from the 2000 dataset - which translates to a hefty 7.4MB Excel spreadsheet on its own - show in dramatic fashion the way some U.S. government agencies stack up against each other on these questions.

While the Internal Revenue Service ranks as relatively open and interactive, the National Security Agency - as one might expect - has an extremely low profile. (See Links at right)

Meanwhile, some agencies in the study are actually benefiting directly from CyPRG's research - particularly by using the WAES criteria as a catalyst for change and improvement in their online operations.

"We find in interviews with webmasters that they have historically been very eager both to know what their competition is doing - how they stack up - and also what we're using to measure them by. A lot of them do what they do because it feels right," LaPorte says.

"What we've provided is a very systematic set of criteria to allow them to review their own work and maximize the quality of their own sites," he says. "That makes me as a social scientist a little ambivalent - the experiment has been changed by my intervening - but I'm also concerned about good public policy and government organizations. ... This is a way by which Web operations can be made better - not because they stumbled around and found it, but because they've been given a systematic way of thinking about it."

In one of the largest such cases, CyPRG's WAES criteria serve as the foundation for seminars given to government agencies all over Michigan by a non-profit group called

"We're in our third year of using [their] criteria set," says Allison Brueckner, partnership manager for Cyber-State. Only about 16% of Michigan's state, county and local government agencies are online, but Cyber-State is working to change that, she says.

"We've found it incredibly meaningful and useful to use [WAES] as a benchmark," she says. "How do we know that we're providing the information that our citizens want, and how do we know that we're doing it in an efficient way? ... Whenever I start talking to people, that's exactly where I start."

For the CyPRG researchers, the 5-year study has been a journey of discovery, of developing datasets where no empirical data had existed.

They have begun addressing larger questions that were never part of their original hypotheses: Does practice keep pace with policy? Has service outstripped security? What do people want and use the most?

"For us, a key driving interest was, 'How is the Web going to infiltrate into these organizations and change them," says Demchak.

As the e-government innovation is growing in popularity, the political power of technocrats has shifted, says Demchak.

Back in 1997, it looked as though the growing technocracy would be based upon arcane knowledge such as a grasp of HTML and programming - and thus built around a hierarchy centralized on any given agency's webmaster.

But in many cases, overworked, yet somewhat autocratic solo webmasters gave way to entire divisions generating their own Web content controlled only by their division headŐs preferences and agency-wide Web format requirements monitored by a central Web manager or "info-master." This process has emerged as Web technology has become more user-friendly and, ultimately, democratic, she says.

That power may shift again - back to agency technology leaders - as they install "content management systems" that enable more centrally-controlled web-based publishing with no special technical knowledge and that integrate Web technology more fully into an agency's overall public service mission, she says.

With agencies in U.S., the "buy-in" attitude for such systems is crucial to making an agency function well on the Web, Demchak says. "If you're dealing with folks over 40, it's extraordinarily difficult," she says. "They only see it as extra work, and if you present them with a content management system that has a high learning curve, they re sucking wind. If [the system] doesn't do what they expect within two clicks, you're going to have to chase them around. We're less patient with them than the Europeans."

After content management systems, the next wave may be extranets - web-based, firewalled interagency data-sharing sites that allow agencies to benefit from each other's work, Demchak said.

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But Demchak says that agency concerns about maintaining data privacy and political control have hampered such development so far both abroad and in the U.S., where only a handful of government organizations such as the U.S. Army have succeeded in building large and successful extranets, Demchak says.

In the time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some government agencies have wondered about - and in many cases acted to reduce - the vulnerability their online roles has imposed on them, say LaPorte and Demchak.

"Nine-11 was not an attack on cybersecurity," Demchak says. "But it heightened the sense that there's a nasty world out there and it can reach you through the Internet. We're seeing people withdraw behind their security measure."

LaPorte cites the quick (and in most cases sensible) move by many agencies to yank from their sites information such as powerplant locations that might prove attractive to terrorists. Some agencies - suddenly aware of the vulnerability and potential liability in what they had online - shut down their sites completely until they could review everything on their Web pages and move the most sensitive information back behind firewalls, he said.

Most famously, the Department of Interior sites shut down completely for several months partly to shield account information on land trusts held by Native American tribes.

"We were tracking about four or five [Dept. of the] Interior agencies that were getting "404 Error - Not Found," he says. "The problem is not that all the departments Web sites were hackable, it was that there was difficulty in the way their systems were set up in keeping these particular accounts private."

He adds, "One of the tenets of digital government activities in federal government is that it will make government services more accessible, more friendly and easier to use. While we find that's largely true, it's not a one-way street. There are occasions in which organizations may find themselves too vulnerable to scrutiny in ways that the Web makes easy but that organizations for their own political or bureaucratic policy reasons don't want." Ultimately,the researchers hope their study will help determine how well government Web sites are serving the people who use them.

And they hope that graduate students, other researchers and government agencies will contribute to the body of knowledge they are building by further analyzing and expanding upon the CyPRG data, which is available here at the CyPRG site.

"Although we think that good HTML coding helps to fulfill the objectives of doing a good Web site," says LaPorte, "We're really looking at this from the point of view of the citizen and the government agency and the connection between the two."

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