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