Your Pass to Good Government

Article excerpt

Byline: Mac Margolis

Skip the lines, forget about bribes. E-gov gives anyone with a web connection direct access to public services.

Had Franz Kafka been born in 21st-century Tallinn, Estonia, instead of 19th-century Prague, some of the gems of modernist literature might never have been written. Instead of the man from the country who spends years trying to get past an implacable gatekeeper in the short story "Before the Law," all he'd need in Estonia is a government-issued electronic identity card. Then he could go online or stick the bar-coded ID into a card reader and, moments later, sign a contract with an international corporate partner, pay a traffic fine, and file his taxes. No lines, no bribes, no forms in triplicate, and no need to plead his case "with one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last," as in Kafka's hellish vision. OK, so our bookshelves would be the poorer--but our lives are a hell of lot easier.

Such is the promise of electronic government, or using technology to deliver public services. E-government was born in the 1980s, when many countries sought to break down the walls of pomp and paper that separate the government from the governed. Australia, Belgium, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and New Zealand have well-developed programs. South Korea is an international showcase, topping every list of electronic problem solvers for most of the last decade. Seoul's Cyber Policy Forum encourages residents to debate urban policy online with city administrators, while Web-based services help citizens find housing, child care, and travel tips.

Of course, powerful technology in the wrong hands can be dangerous. E-gov raises concerns about privacy and data security. In Brazil last month, with just weeks remaining before the presidential elections, tax statements of a leading Brazilian politician were leaked to the press. Fortunately, Brazil's tax authority keeps digital signatures of all of its staff, which quickly allowed for the identification of the mole. But such a security breach could easily change the course of an election.

Despite those issues, the growing availability of high-speed Internet access, the spread of democracy, and the emergence of a demanding global middle class are likely to continue reshaping public service and breaking down the culture of bureaucrats. "There's a huge amount of pressure for improving services around the world, and the Web is the best place to empower people at low cost," says Marc Holzer, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration, which runs a biannual survey on e-government around the world. "Though bureaucrats resist, the technology may just overpower them."

Nations on the cutting edge of e-gov are, unsurprisingly, the high-income countries with easily available broadband. But there's something far more important uniting the leading e-powers: a culture of openness. Governments must be willing to unlock information and make it accessible to ordinary citizens. In that spirit, the Obama administration has created an open-government initiative that provides citizens with access to Web sites that allow them to expedite veterans' health benefits, get traffic reports on mobile phones--or blow the whistle on corruption.

Even the famously clubby British bureaucracy has fallen for transparency. Launched earlier this year, the U.K.'s open-data initiative gave citizens access to the massive Treasury database. Now taxpayers can find out, for example, which civil servants earn more than the prime minister or the London hospitals where patients face the greatest risk of contracting lethal infections. …