Even people who support government dread having actual encounters with it. Things don’t have to be that way.
In a way, iGov would be the federal, Information Age-analogue to New York City’s wildly successful 311 program. Less than ten years old, the program allows anybody to call in, speak to an operator, and learn vital information about city services, from pothole repair to school closings to snow removal. The service has handled more than 100 million calls in about 180 different languages and spawned imitators across the country. Of course, the scope of the federal government’s responsibilities is much broader than New York City’s. And we shudder to think that it took government more than a century to figure out how best to use the telephone.
The 311 service entered the lexicon gradually, until it became virtually synonymous with city government accessibility. The word “iGov” should achieve the same at the federal level, and do for government’s relationship to the Internet what 311 did for its relationship to telephones. We envision a personalized experience with each government agency’s website for users who are logged into their iGov account. Users could also choose to link their iGov account with social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter, so that they could see what their friends like on the agency’s website and find specialized news feeds. The iGov platform would expand the opportunities for targeted information sources, such as FoodSafety.gov, which is a multi-agency effort to provide consumers with information about recalls and alerts about food safety. It could also help combat inaccurate information. For example, when rumors spread last fall that the EPA was on the verge of regulating farm-dust emissions, Administrator Lisa Jackson released a statement making clear they were not based in reality. And yet the rumor continued to crop up, again and again. Agencies cannot combat rumors and falsehoods without connections to communities, which are increasingly available through social media.
iGov would help ensure that all federal agencies are fully integrated into the stream of viral information that now so strongly shapes what people think. It would build on the White House new media team’s push to use social media and other communication initiatives like the federal Plain Language Action and Information Network, which aims to make “bureaucratese” a thing of the past. It could add new tools such as online chats with service representatives from different agencies when and where demand warranted it. For those who would prefer the traditional experience of viewing a federal agency’s website anonymously, that would continue for anyone not logged into to their iGov account.
While the federal government would not start from scratch in pursuit of an iGov strategy, it would have a long way to go. Just getting up to speed with the strides taken by the private sector would be a tall order. Since the initial widespread deployment of information technology under the Reinventing Government initiative in the Clinton-Gore Administration, much has changed. Companies like Amazon, Fidelity, and Facebook have shown how to electronically manage a rich set of individual and community relationships. Relying on customized information, these companies provide easy access to what customers want and need. They connect individuals to communities with similar interests who have made similar transactions before. iGov would adopt similar techniques to deepen the relationship between citizens and government.
Fighting the Anti-Government Mindset
Americans will always be skeptical of their government. As well they should; skepticism of government is healthy, and part of our heritage. But we’ve gone beyond skepticism. An anti-government mindset has all but conquered American politics. Is it possible that the gradual implementation of iGov—the use of modern-day technology to showcase everyone’s unique, complicated relationship with the federal government—would do its part to adjust that attitude? While not naïve utopians, we think that the answer is yes. If nothing else, when the government is as despised as ours, it has no choice but to improve. As the saying goes, it has nowhere to go but up.
Of course, design and implementation would happen slowly, as an iterative process that the President could initiate via executive order or Congress could launch through legislation. Over time, different agencies would merge their efforts into iGov. Right now, many agencies are moving toward technological modernity, but there has been no coordinated effort on this central point: Citizens should know the details of their relationship with their government. They should not be in the dark about the costs they put in or the benefits they receive. iGov, understood as a unifying strategy and a lodestar for action, is meant to tell a dynamic, long-term story. As a goal, it is both alluringly straightforward and one that will require immense yet incremental efforts across Washington.
As iGov takes hold at the federal level, it will be critical for state governments to join in as well. After all, the states distribute many federal benefits such as food stamps and health care for the poor and disabled. It seems plausible, if not likely, that the states would offer their own versions. In, say, one or two decades’ time, come April 15, you’d know not only where your tax money was going—you’d know in what form it was coming back. If you had a question about Social Security, you could speak with a representative online. While paying off your student loan, you could examine the way in which federal money benefited your community. And as the states take up iGov, perhaps it would be possible to shorten the dreaded DMV wait time by instituting an online appointment process, similar to that found in Apple stores (indeed, some state DMVs have started doing this). Above all, no matter where you fell on the ideological spectrum, you’d have a better idea of that shared project, the national government.
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