The first phase of eGovernment was all about providing
online access to basic transactional capabilities–renewing car tabs or paying
a license fee. Today the big buzz is about making public data available in
machine-readable formats so government, private and NGO developers can build
useful apps for mobile devices. But even as eGov 2.0 is gaining momentum, some
tech policy activists are looking beyond the basic transaction and app model to
the kind of innovation that can improve the function of government at its most
essential level: the ability of elected representatives to respond to
constituents, and for citizens to make their voices heard.
Sarah Schacht, executive director of the Seattle-based
nonprofit Knowledge As Power,
has been working closely with public officials and private IT services
companies to increase the reach and depth of the city’s eGovernment systems.
Earlier this week, she and her team were recognized
by the Mayor and the city’s CIO for a usability study that helped
streamline the city’s data portal, data.seattle.gov.
Schacht is pleased that the city is following through with
commitments around data disclosure and transparency, but believes that the real
potential of eGovernment for citizen engagement won’t be realized until
government bodies and administrative agencies make their documents available in
searchable format, not just the raw data. Data, she says, is largely impersonal
and uncontroversial, whereas documents reveal the actual actions of legislators
and bureaucrats that impact the lives of citizens.
Currently, government policies and willingness to share
information contained in documents lags the technology. There are international standards for machine-readable
documents emerging in Europe and Africa, and organizations like Knowledge As
Power are trying to promote their
adoption in the U.S.
Schacht believes that government needs the human element to
be effective and responsive. Earlier in her career, she led a research study to
identify the best ways for citizens to break through the clutter of mass
communications and actually engage their representatives on the issues that
matter to them. Legislators, she said, really do want to make a difference, but
it is hard for them to identify and respond to their constituents when they are
inundated with a barrage of mass-mailings, institutionally-generated
form-letters, and boilerplate talking points repeated from the media.
“What really gets through to a representative is a personal
story, told in a couple of paragraphs,” she said. The problem is that most
elected officials are working with old email systems that lack the kind of
capabilities to sort the personal communications from the blasts and robo-mails
generated by advocacy organizations.
The technologies do exist to allow representatives and
citizens to see each other more clearly through the haze of mail and documents,
but they are not the kind of investments that most governments are making. They
fall more in the areas of semantic search, data mining, markup and tagging —
the sorts of applications that would make it easy to extract word clouds from
800 pages worth of environmental testimony or help legislative aides hear the
authentic voices of constituents buried in the “add your personal story here”
sections of pressure-group form letters.
Today, all the creative energy and dollars are going into
ideas for presenting public data in new and interesting ways–a necessary
step, but not in itself sufficient to bring the real promise of representative
government into the 21st century. In the meantime, organizations
like Knowledge As Power are quietly pushing ahead with the eGov3.0 agenda of
making digital democracy a reality.