E-government grows, with glitches
Washington State leads the way in putting its services on the Web. But is it leaving residents behind?
OLYMPIA, WASH. — All Michael Fairley wanted was a show-promoter's license for his Seattle antique business.
But to get one from the state, he spent five full hours on the phone one day. Had the form been available online, which it will be soon, his need could have been met with the click of a mouse.
Mr. Fairley may not think so, but here in the land of Microsoft, e-government is taking hold faster than a speeding e-mail - a pace far speedier than bureaucracies usually move.
"If they can do it in Redmond [Microsoft headquarters], we can do it in Olympia," says Steve Kolodney, who heads the department charged with taking the State of Washington from the triplicate age to the electronic age.
While Washington has accumulated a trophy-case worth of awards for its efforts (including best state government Web site), concerns are surfacing about how far and how fast to go in pushing electronic access to government.
Some residents and consumer advocates worry that the less-educated and the poor, who often don't have access to personal computers, will experience falling levels of service - and greater levels of frustration.
The result is a backlash to what some see as an over-reliance on technology. Even Gov. Gary Locke, who backs the government's transition to online services, this spring ordered all state agencies to have real people answering their phones.
The governor acted after state lawmakers failed to pass an "answer the phone" bill - widely considered the most popular piece of legislation of the session. While Washington has gone the furthest, Maine recently started monitoring its agencies to determine the effectiveness of telephone communication, and North Carolina passed a law last year requiring state agencies to reduce the number of menus on their phone systems. Oklahoma and Kentucky have also considered answer-the-phone bills.
"Ideally, government is supposed to exist to help us all. If it converts all its energy into serving people electronically, it's doing more catering to people who have multiple phone lines, fast access, and computers at home," says Doug Schuler, a faculty member at the Evergreen State College here and former chairman of the National Board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. "So far, computers by and large have only exacerbated differences between rich and poor. If we just push technology, we're just increasing the already gigantic divide."
The human connection
Indeed, Erica Quimby of Olympia is no fan of technology-laden government. She just wanted someone, anyone, from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to answer her phone call. After repeated attempts, Ms. Quimby says she finally got to speak - four days later - with a real person about why food stamps for her family had not arrived.
Less than two miles from the monstrous DSHS Capitol 5000 building, where welfare recipients line up, is the sleek chrome-and-glass reception office at the Department of Information Services. In the communication director's office, a white board posts the latest innovations - online hunting and fishing licenses, and a new security system.
For the past two years, Washington's government has been named the national leader in dotcom services. Other top-ranking dotcom states include Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Alabama, and Montana.
"Most states are making progress," says Tom Lenard of the Washington, D.C.-based Progress and Freedom Foundation, which promotes the development of information technology. All states, for example, now provide online postings for state jobs, although some are more complete than others. And 40 states, he says, no longer send checks through the mail, but transfer benefits, such as welfare, into peoples' accounts electronically.
The top tier of tech-savvy states also offer electronic tax filing, unclaimed property lists, and various licenses. In a harbinger of services to come, Washington is working on offering secured electronic signatures, electronic check and credit-card payment options, and online renewal of drivers' licenses and vehicle tabs.
"Citizens expect [these services], and we're going to deliver," says DIS's Mr. Kolodney, who oversees a $110 million annual budget.
Public willingness to do business with government over the Internet varies. Dotcom government is favored most by the computer generation and least by the elderly and poor, who tend to have less access to and familiarity with computers. Surveys in Arizona, New Hampshire, and Iowa show support for online vehicle registration, updating addresses, and access to birth certificates. A majority, however, opposes voting online, although Mr. Lenard and others expect that resistance to fade over time.
Glitches in the system
Still, government may not be able to deliver on its electronic promises. Despite the $20 billion expected to be spent on e-government worldwide during the next five years, more than half of the initiatives are expected to fail because the systems don't meet consumer expectations. Hurdles include recruiting young talent, planning what the new systems should accomplish, and setting measurable goals during the transition.
Then again, there's that fundamental resistance to change that bureaucracies are famous for. Washington's Kolodney has created an "academy," where workers from a variety of agencies "learn from each other ... away from daily pressures," he says. "Wouldn't it be nice to figure out how to do permits once, and then replicate them six times, so that, for example, ecology and parks permits have the same look?"
Meanwhile, a Washington State University study is trying to untangle DSHS's 19,000 phone numbers so that customers like Ms. Quimby will no longer have to spend days trying to get a real person on the phone. Every three months for a year, university researchers are calling 400 DSHS numbers at random to see if they can get through to a person, if the voice-mail message has been updated for the week, and if, over time, service improves.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society