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Is Government IT Living Up to Its Promise?
E-Government Does Not Necessarily Equal E-Democracy, DG Study Finds
For the DGRC

Grass-roots E-democracy

" Project profile
" Researcher profile: Donald Norris
" Paper: Electronic Government at the American Grassroots - 2002

Since the mid-1990s, the popular press has talked about a new age of democracy enabled by citizen access to the Internet.

The widespread attention garnered by the presidential campaign of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, largely funded by donations to his Web site, would seem a perfect example of the effects of an online revolution. But changes that look overwhelming on the cover of a magazine can be more subtle and incremental in day-to-day life.

Digital Government researcher Donald Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research and public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, decided to look beyond the hype to see what online interactions between government and citizens were really like at the local level:

Were citizens communicating more with elected officials? Were elected officials reaching out more to citizens? Never mind the headline-grabbing stuff like donating to presidential campaigns - was the Internet really giving Americans a chance to participate directly in democracy at a grassroots level?

While many Digital Government researchers work in close partnership with one agency or a few government officials, Norris, decided to conduct focus groups in four regions of the United States with officials from 37 city and county governments. Sponsored by the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration,decided to conduct focus groups involving officials from city and county governments across the U.S.

He drew participants from both professionally managed and elected executive led governments, and included technology, administrative and policy officials. "These were high-level persons and all were knowledgeable about their jurisdictions' deployment of e-government," Norris says. "There was a high degree of consistency among them and that is good, especially when you have a number of people representing a range of places and populations. You can be pretty confident the data are valid and reliable."

The responses he got showed that e-democracy in practice isn't a virtual town hall but an electronic desk clerk. For all the idealism about greater democratic participation, most local governments had gone online for purely pragmatic reasons. "Most eGovernment is being driven by IT departments who think it's a good thing to do, as a way to put governmental information and services online and make government more accessible and transparent for citizens," says Norris. The primary purpose is to expedite delivery of information and services to citizens and businesses.

Secondarily, local governments had concentrated on engineering business processes, hoping to increase efficiency and cost-savings. Going online was a way to cope with staff reductions, to improve responsiveness and to replicate private-sector initiatives. Not perhaps Jeffersonian ideals, but then what did Jefferson know about paying parking tickets?

In fact, participants expressed concern that utopian ideals could have noteworthy downsides in practice.

Online forums - often thought of as an ideal way to encourage participation by those who lack the time or ability to attend civic meetings - can too easily be co-opted by deliberately disruptive posters or by those who have organized to push one narrow agenda.

Officials said they were not yet comfortable with the security of e-Voting systems, and they honestly wondered about the value of elections made too easy. Similarly, they know and value the distinction between direct democracy and representational democracy, and they worry that online referendums may blur that line.

But even when officials think of more innovative and creative uses of their Web sites, they run up against familiar barriers. Norris's participants cited lack of inter- and intra-governmental cooperation, and the need for support from key elected officials. And most of all, says Norris, "It's resources.

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"Also, lack of resources can be a problem," says Norris. "It's not that they don't have satisfactory technology platforms, but money is needed for staff and software development," he says. "If the IT department is busy running legacy operations, you can't pull off innovations."

There's an important additional cost for transactional e-government, "That local governments are just beginning to wrestle with," says Norris, "If you're going to allow people to pay their parking tickets, buy compost from the waste water treatment plant, or pay taxes online, you have to let them do it by credit card. But who's going to pay the credit card fee? If it's 3 or 4% for the credit card fee, the jurisdiction loses that money, and during tight budgetary times they can’t afford to do so. Yet at the same time, local governments don't want to charge convenience fees for fear of driving down participation."

Where his work will be most helpful says Norris is that, "Governments tend not to evaluate the impact of what they do, they just do it. Although some will build evaluations into a project, often the data is very impressionistic, relatively few of the governments do any kind of serious, formal studies of the effect of what they've done."

Norris says he hopes that his work will give perspective on the ultimate value of so many eGovernment initiatives—if they do not perhaps live up to some of the more glorious ideals, are they at least producing substantial savings and satisfied citizen-customers?

“Not all local governments look at their citizens and consumers and ask what they want out of e-government,” he says. “I hope to do that in my next study.”