WASHINGTON, August 7, 2009 – The technology revolution will fundamentally change and improve the way that citizens and government interact, but that change must embrace everyone to accomplish its goals, public officials and policy experts agreed Thursday.
The revolution is enabling people to access government services in a way that allows them to see how their government is operating, said Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra during the workshop hosted by the Federal Communications Commission.
Since federal money is being used to develop information technology, the government wants to engage the American people to help shape the way the money is used, he said, noting that the government is not the only source of technological innovation.
Broadband technology “enables us to create the most participatory democracy of our time” by providing better services and creating more open ways of working and policy making, said Beth Noveck, federal deputy chief technology officer for open government.
“We very much turn the policy-making process inside out,” she said.
Broadband has been used to “foster civic engagement in local communities” by getting citizens to communicate about problem in their local communities and collaborate about how to solve them, she said.
Graham Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., praised broadband technology for making his city easier to run more efficiently.
For example, Fort Wayne has been able to use broadband to determine how to locate and fill potholes more quickly. It also has been aided by real-time monitoring technologies allowing it to find out the amount of time a street-sweeping truck spends sweeping the street versus how much time it spends going to where it has to sweep, he said.
Broadband has helped to reduce crime rates in Fort Wayne by facilitating police communication and their deployment along with services that allow law enforcers to track a criminal’s every move, he said.
“None of us are as smart as all of us,” he said.
Kundra also touted the benefits of e-government, saying it saves money for government employees and is a “mechanism to drive productivity. For example, 50 percent of Patent and Trademark Office employees telecommute, which saves travel costs and aids the environment, he said. Additionally, when Government Accountability Office employees were forced to evacuate their building after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they were able to continue agency operations by telecommuting.
However, it’s important to ensure that employees have the proper tools and understanding of how to use technology, said Kundra. “So much of what we do online actually requires training” but “many companies have made it so difficult to interact with technologies,” he said.
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, spoke on the second panel on civil engagement.
Because most political discourse and commerce today will conducted through broadband, “we don’t want a society of haves and have nots,” he said.
The Internet is the new “public square,” where people can learn about the government, communicate with the government, and share their ideas, and “if citizens don’t have that access they will be shut out of the public debate,” he said.
One problem, said Ornstein, is that many Internet users are “cocooning” themselves by only reading the blogs that reinforce their own ideas, and “we are losing the common set of facts around which debate can be formed.”
Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, highlighted the importance of broadband in keeping average people involved in the political process.
Most videos of political candidates on YouTube during the 2008 election were created by average citizens, and this has had a tremendous impact on the political landscape, he said.
Rasiej shared the story of his elderly parents who were able to send e-mails with links to a video of then-presidential candidate Obama on YouTube to more than 50 friends at a time.
This technology can be used to protect free speech by enabling citizens to communicate with each other discreetly, and may ultimately redefine international politics by creating a “citizen to citizen diplomacy,” he said.
“If working-class people cannot access these sights,” he said, “they are being excluded from 21st century technology.”
Citizenship can only be transformed when the government is willing to make information public and in real time, said John Wunderlich, program director for the Sunlight Foundation.