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DG Discipline Is Maturing, Facing New Challenges
With strong submissions and a burgeoning research community, the field of DG research is maturing into a better-definied scientific field
DGRC Staff

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With major subspecialties emerging in homeland security and social science and public policy, and a growing international presence, the discipline of digital government research has taken a giant step toward maturity, dg.o2003 participants said this week.

The bar has been raised on the basic science. Of the 144 digital government research proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation, only 14 new projects were funded, despite a highly recommended rating for 20 projects and a recommendation for 24 others, says Program Manager Valerie Gregg. The submissions, three times the number proffered in the past, included 30 on homeland security issues and 40 addressing political and social science questions, Gregg adds.

Clearly, Digital Government has burst from its original IT roots and branched into other scientific areas. And the new areas of interest are not a passing phase.

Answering the post-Sept. 11 call for security upgrades, DG researchers are doing ground-breaking work in mobile communications, sensor networks and crisis management. International e-government researchers from Turkey, Hungary and the Middle east sparked debate over whether another new subdiscipline in international DG had been born.

And the social and policy people are not just measuring how DG innovations will be accepted, but helping to influence the organizational thinking that goes into designing digital government research projects and planning e-government solutions.

Program Chair Peggy Agouris

"These aren't just database people," says program chair Peggy Agouris of the University of Maine. "With their feedback and input they are giving us whole new directions to work in."

Other ground-breaking projects presented at the conference included work on environmental protection, open source software, privacy and e-voting.

The conference, too, is growing up. The Boston meeting was the first held beyond the annual gathering's Los Angeles birthplace, and the first with a volunteer program chair in Agouris. From now on, the conference will alternate between western and eastern U.S. cities, with a rotating chairmanship. These changes also are markers of advancement, conference officials said.

"We're within a year or two of making this a self-sustaining effort," says conference co-chair Yigal Arens.

The larger question, and one that has provoked debate since the program's inception, is whether Digital Government is ripening into an independent academic discipline.

By virtue of its fundamental collaboration with government partners, DG research will always have a strong focus on applications. And the scientists, who cross many disciplines, will keep their feet in other academic worlds. But Arens said that he thinks the DG community is here to stay.

DG Program Manager Larry Brandt tells PIs about plans for a new, more focused program announcement and possible plans for a scholarly journal on digital government research.

"We're still in the process of developing an independent discipline," Arens says. "I don't personally think we've achieved it yet, but I'd like to think there are many for whom digital government work has become more and more significant."

Members of the digital government community are even discussing their own academic journal, although Arens believes a wiser course might be to produce special issues for other publications, as was done with the rich special issue of the ACM journal devoted to Digital Government this past January.

One disappointment this year was that shifting the conference venue to the east did not attract more government officials. Arens and Gregg say that state budget crises, as well as a federal travel ban, were to blame.

"People may be concerned because of the severe economic downturn they are less sanguine there will be completely new and different things coming out," Arens says. "But there are still new things we can do."

"Digital government is much better than others [at drawing in government participants]," Agouris adds. "People have come in with a ton of proposals that are really relevant for crisis management and homeland security," says Digital Government Program Manager Larry Brandt. "Our struggle as an agency is to put a rational framework around that ... to give it some direction and push it out in the future."