Imagine how much happier you would be at tax time if your IRS filing came to you pre-populated with your income and deductions, so all you had to do was sign and wait for your refund. Or, if you could apply for disability payments and arrange for direct deposit over the Internet. How about being able to start a new company online in minutes? Wouldn’t you like to be able to discover when your personal data was accessed by a government employee?
Estonians can do things like this. But not us Americans.
Our daily commercial lives are made more convenient because of the digital economy; we can gather information and connect to others in ways that were unimaginable even 20 years ago. Yet this revolution has largely passed by our government and a growing number of voices are saying we are missing a large opportunity. Last week, on my radio program I discussed this with Bill Eggers, a recognized expert on digital government. In his new book “Digital Government,” he shares several strong reasons for applying digital technologies to government including cost efficiency, more citizen participation and higher satisfaction with government. The time for rapid adoption of digital technologies to government has arrived and change is inevitable, he asserts.
I agree that technologically we are ready for advances such as online voting. We already use mobile technologies for banking and other highly secure transactions —we have proven we can confirm identity and detect fraud. So why aren’t we doing more? It is not a technological limitation — what is it?
I think it’s the human dimension. Some are internal to government and others relate to our citizens’ distrust of government.
Internally, there are pressures that support the maintenance of the status quo. As with any large organization, government is slow to change. Disruption is generally easier in smaller nimble groups. This is why start-ups tend to be a larger source of new innovation in our society.
Additionally, some involved in government don’t want to be subjected to the greater scrutiny and engagement that digital approaches would create — just think about transparency of campaign contributions or voter fraud and how they shine a light on areas currently in the shadows.
The last governmental obstacle is contracting. Often, it is so difficult to do business with the federal agencies that many digital natives simply give up. The Federal Acquisition Rules exist to prevent corruption, but they can be burdensome to the uninitiated.
The most significant external limitation is how our citizens approach privacy. Many Americans feel uncomfortable giving up their privacy to a government effort, yet they have no problem letting Facebook know all about them. Google and Facebook probably know more about you right now than the federal government does.
The ethics of digital privacy is a growing issue, both for a private and public sector. Realizing the potential of applying digital technologies to government requires a clearer communication of what privacy means in a digital age, and who gets to control access to our personal data.
None of these hurdles are impossible to overcome. However, collectively, they require a concerted coordination of public policy, education and engagement. Although we like to imagine that all industries can be disrupted by the free market and new innovations, changing government involves change from within. So long as we have a complex society that needs shared rules, government will abide. We should demand a government that works.
Realizing the potential for digital technologies in government is an enormous and positive opportunity for our region and our nation. We would be foolish to miss out.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.