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By David Osborne and Peter Plastrik
Sunday, August 10, 1997; Page W05

With the 1990s turning into the Internet Era, profit-hungry businesses are scrambling to get their products onto the World Wide Web. You can buy almost anything online today.

Too bad we can't harness the Internet to meet our most compelling social needs. Wouldn't it be nice if our governments were entrepreneurial enough to put public services online?

Surprise. They are.

The past three years have seen an explosion of Internet use in the public sector. The Internet and the Web are virgin territory, not yet fenced off with bureaucratic barbed wire. Indeed, going on the Web may be the one thing our public servants can do unconstrained by rules and regulations. So the entrepreneurs among them have seized the day.

The federal government alone has thousands of Web sites. Some of them are quite useful.

Consider the "U.S. Business Advisor," a site that links to 106,000 addresses containing virtually everything a businessperson might want to know about dealing with the federal government ( There are pages that will help you figure out how to sell to the government, buy from the government, get help with exports or take out a loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.

There are also answers to frequently asked questions, such as, "My mother will be moving. What does she need to do to make sure she won't miss any of her Social Security checks?"

Serving Citizens Online: More important than online information, however, is the fact that some federal agencies are beginning to deliver actual services online -- without the waiting time we have come to expect. If you want an SBA loan, you can get the forms online, fill them out and submit them electronically ( forms).

If you're looking for a job, you can check millions of listings on "America's Job Bank," created by the Department of Labor ( Usage has skyrocketed, from 1 to 2 million hits a month in 1995 to 29 million in June. Employers also find it useful. As the Labor Department's David Balducci explains, if they weren't finding employees, they would stop posting job openings. But the number has doubled every seven months.

Nine states have already created "talent banks," on which people can post their resumes for perusal by employers, and the Labor Department is working on a nationwide version.

In Massachusetts, the One-Stop Career Center program is building a database that will list every provider of adult education or training in the state, along with information about prices, graduation rates, job placement rates, wages earned by graduates and what those graduates say about the programs in customer surveys.

Florida has a one-stop Web site where people can apply for state jobs, get fishing and hunting licenses, search a database of doctors, find out about state contracts that are out for bid or simply get information about travel and tourism (

Washington state has a Web page that matches carpool riders with drivers (

But our favorite is Connecticut's "Deadbeat Parents" home page ( The attorney general and the Department of Social Services (DSS) both post names and photos of fathers (and potentially mothers) who owe child support, and ask people to send in information about their whereabouts. The opening screens have "WANTED" signs and an 800 number: 800-228-KIDS.

Wanted posters are distributed to post offices, grocery stores and police departments as well as on the Web, and the combined effort is having a major impact. Three of the six people on the attorney general's most recent poster turned themselves in within three days.

"We've found that a lot of people come forward on their own to pay, just because of the embarrassment of having their pictures out there," says David Berry, who designed the DSS Web site. "But I also get two or three referrals -- here's where this guy lives, here's his address -- every week by e-mail alone. I even get referrals for people who don't have their pictures on the Internet.

"Some of these people don't live in the state anymore," he adds. "The Internet gives us hope that people will see their pictures and report them to us. We had one individual call us from Texas and say, 'I'm going to pay so can you please take my picture off?' "

In the first full fiscal year of the crackdown, which included the wanted posters, deadbeat "roundups," license suspensions and other efforts, Connecticut's collection rate jumped nearly 16 percent. According to the state attorney general's office, this helped 1,902 families move off welfare.

Local Creativity: City and county governments are equally enthusiastic Internet users. They routinely put information on their Web pages to attract employers: tax rates, land and energy costs, available industrial and commercial sites, and education and training resources in the area. Some even provide building code and permit assistance online.

Creative schools all over the country are putting up Web pages. Teachers and students in the Kent School District in Washington state develop interactive learning programs for Web-based courses. Correct answers earn rewards -- like a quick trip to Disneyland's Web site.

Perhaps the most surprising surge of Internet use has come from the nation's police forces. More than 800 police departments now have Web pages, and many use online networks to exchange information on crime. Cities from Salem, Ore., to Alexandria have given their police officers laptops and wireless communication capability, so they can file reports and check crime data from their cars.

Chicago is putting its entire central database online -- complete with automated crime mapping -- so officers will be able to explore crime trends, search for data on suspects, and check fingerprints and mug shots from their laptops. Chicago also has a Web page that citizens use to report suspicious activity or to find out how to get involved in community policing (

CommunityPolicing). It reports monthly crime statistics -- and success stories -- for each neighborhood.

When California's new statewide automated network CAL/GANG goes online next year, police departments throughout the state will have instant access to detailed records on 200,000 gang members. Massachusetts is developing a system that will connect 20 state agencies, local police, sheriffs, district attorneys, prosecutors and parole offices. When someone enters a name, the system will automatically query every state database.

A Long Revolution: But all this is just the beginning. In 20 years, most schools will give students laptops and Internet access; students will watch lectures on the Web; and instructional software will liberate them to go at their own pace. Distance learning will become commonplace.

Assuming that privacy issues can be solved, we'll fill out our tax forms online. When we have questions about our Social Security accounts, we'll just log on.

Someday we may even store our medical records online. Imagine doctors downloading a complete medical history while an accident victim is still in the ambulance.

We may never figure out how to fight wars or pick up the garbage on the Web, but the Internet is clearly going to revolutionize the business of government.

David Osborne and Peter Plastrik are coauthors of Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government. Osborne is a managing partner of the Public Strategies Group, a consulting firm. Plastrik is a partner with On Purpose Associates, a nonprofit consulting group.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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