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Executive summary

Executive Summary


Government remains essential in the Information Age society. Although there is debate over structure and operation, government's objectives are indisputable: maintaining collective security, administering justice, providing the institutional infrastructure of the economy, ensuring that vital social capital is enhanced through improvements in health and education and through strong families and communities. In its role as a service provider, government needs to be fully capable of delivering high quality, effective, affordable services. However, in cases where government itself is not the best delivery vehicle, it must engage or allow others in the voluntary and profit-making sectors to carry out this role. Information technology, already an essential part of government operations, will continue to be vitally important to administration, decision making, and direct service delivery. It will also be critical in the evolving relationships between government and other kinds of organizations, and between government and citizens.

Today, government is being transformed along several dimensions. Where it was organized to act independently or according to rigid rules, it is now involved in complex patterns of interdependence.Traditional methods of public management based on hierarchical notions of "command and control" are being replaced by approaches that depend on collaboration, negotiation, and incentives among partners. The boundaries between government and business that served as clear lines of separation are now blurring as public-private partnerships emerge to address increasingly complex problems and goals.Citizens are coming to expect vastly different performance from government. They are little concerned with which level or unit or organization delivers a service, but are increasingly concerned that those services be sensible, cost-effective, convenient, and of high quality.

Government has been at the forefront of information technology research and application for decades. We often take for granted that many traditional functions of government, such as the Social Security system and national defense, would not operate at all without information technology. However, today's technical tools, including digital communications and advanced networking, are beginning to offer transformational value to many more functional areas. We can already see their potential in relatively rare government applications that engage citizens directly. The Internal Revenue Service e-file and Telefile programs allow taxpayers to file their returns electronically using technologies as simple as their telephones. The Santa Monica Public Electronic Network (PEN) provides myriad information services to that Southern California community and serves as a virtual host for public discussion of important civic issues. Advanced computing and communications technology make programs like these technically feasible, but alone they are insufficient for achieving the kinds of services that the public demands and deserves. Leadership, management strategies, organizational structures, cross-boundary relationships, financing mechanisms, information policies, and public participation and acceptance are all equally crucial elements of effective 21st Century government services. This extraordinarily complex combination of technical, organizational, economic, human, and political factors explains why applications like e-file and PEN are not at all common. Such programs present huge challenges along all of these dimensions, and because they are governmental, public scrutiny, the limitations of public funding, and the necessity of providing for universal access present enormous risks of failure.

In 1997, the National Science Foundation launched the Digital Government Program to support research projects that will help move American government toward the promise of transformed public services. The program fosters broad connection between government information services providers and research communities, and seeks innovative research to improve agency, interagency, and intergovernmental operations, as well as interactions between citizens and government.

Clearly, no single domain of knowledge will be sufficient to the challenge. Computer and information science, the social and behavioral sciences, and the full range of public policy domains and management disciplines need to be actively engaged. However, effective partnerships among disciplines and between researchers and practitioners face formidable barriers of their own. Different value systems, vocabularies and conceptual frameworks, and lack of awareness and experience of one another all mitigate against the kind of multidisciplinary collaboration that is needed.

In October 1998, a workshop sponsored by the Digital Government Program was convened by the Center for Technology in Government of the University at Albany/SUNY to address these challenges. The workshop focused particularly on the environment in which government information services are developed. It recognized that government programs and service delivery mechanisms are developed in a complex multi-layered Federal-state-local system in which many organizations play significant and different roles. It also emphasized that development efforts must deal with interactions among the political, organizational, technological, economic, and human factors that shape the implementation environment.