- Published: 24 March 2023
Many years have passed since the Internet first became part of how government serves the people. There have been setbacks along the way, but digital government continues to deliver on its promise.
Homer Simpson spoke for a generation of legislators and the general public when, in a February 1998 episode, he observed, “Ohh, they have the Internet on computers now.” That vibe was very much part of the atmosphere as governments experimented with establishing a presence on the network of networks at the turn of the century.
It seems both quaint and prescient that my first column for Government Technology, which appeared 21 years ago this month, celebrated “the portal.” It came at a time when there was intense pressure to increase capacity and performance of government service delivery while reducing employee headcount and cost. Sound familiar?
My inaugural column attempted to celebrate and carry forward all that was good about our democratic institutions while hinting at the possibilities of where the Internet — specifically portals — could take us:
“Consider the capitol dome and, in many cases, their virtual equivalents on the Internet — the portal. As the official home of the state flag, the state seal and a portrait gallery of leaders past and present, the capitol building is high on symbolism. It is also, by design, high on function. It is the place where the people’s business gets done — supported by a network of operating agencies that stand behind the capitol building with a reach extending across the state.
“The combination is at once compelling and comforting — just watch the first timers approach the grand edifices and enter these civic temples. In the sometimes-overused speech of the Internet, the capitol is the original public-sector portal. As such, it is a useful standard bearer for those who are building 21st-century government. The state capitol represents a declaration of intent that the people in a geographically defined space — which spans multiple cities and counties — will act together as a single entity, sharing the burdens and the benefits of community.
“At best, such a community is bound together by both practical considerations of cost reduction and mutual aid, and by a big idea that is sometimes captured in the state motto — Alaska’s ‘North to the future’; Kansas’ ‘Ad astra per aspera ... To the stars through difficulties’; and New Hampshire’s embrace of ‘Live Free or Die’ come to mind. The big idea for the state Internet portal is to provide and support the kind of government that was imagined by the people who first chiseled those words into stone at their respective statehouses, without the constraints of time or space that characterized the earlier era. The Internet collapses geographical barriers, making government available at the time and place of the citizen’s choosing.”
The intervening years have been hard on those aspirations. Yet, self-service became dominant as full service slipped out of reach for many jurisdictions. While many governments built and operated portals for themselves, a single company grew to partner with 30 states in developing and running their portals. Its self-funded model accelerated adoption and fueled an application arms race. Unlike most arms races, however, this one accrued to the benefit of residents across the country who were able to access an ever-growing universe of online services from their governments.
There have been clear misses. The dot-gov domain and the trust it was intended to engender have not yet become universal. And despite much work and a fair amount of courage to overcome bureaucratic intransigence and inter-agency rivalries, a civics lesson in departmental organization is still necessary to find the services you need. And sometimes the stuff just doesn’t work — sometimes when it is needed the most.
Still, the state of self-service government is strong. It proves its value every day, as it did during the worst days of the pandemic. It helps real people do real things around the clock — on their phones! And we may yet see the triumph of synthetic service over self-service. The promise of the portal was to government early this century what AI is to government today. It brings with it the promise of fulfilling the promise of the portal. The dream never dies, just the form factor.
Autor(en)/Author(s): Paul W. Taylor.
Quelle/Source: Government Technology, march 2023