The eGovernment Revolution

Government information should be made much more freely available.
  • Transcript


Question: How have advances in information technology transformed government?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: For a very long period of time, starting in the 1960s and then into the 1970s, computers were seen as a way information technology in general was seen as a way of making government bureaucracy more efficient and effective.  So, the drive was always productivity, efficiency, doing more with less.  Maybe in the 1990s or so, we had another dimension come into this picture and that is to be more consumer friendly, or citizen friendly in the services that the government provides.  But these are just two very specific ways of looking at how government interacts with society because it looks at the citizens as consumers as transactional partners with the government.  They go for efficiency to lower the cost, or you go for consumer friendliness or transactional partner friendliness in order to provide some service quality. 

I believe that electronic government information or technology in government must go much further than that.  We as a society have a right to know better what the government is doing, to engage with the government and to have a government in place that is willing and able to use the technological tools available to engage us citizens.  That’s currently not happening or not happening at a sufficiently high level.  We are still in this old fashioned mode of thinking about transaction efficiency and user friendliness.

Is the U.S. government lagging in information technology?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: The U.S. government lags behind in electronic government quite a bit large because whenever you need to create an electronic government transaction, software, you need to involve a number of different government stakeholders.  And they just despise each other usually, and they hate when the other side has access to their information and data.  Data silos and information silos in government are one way of defining power and influence.  And so obliterating those silos really reduces the power of individual departments and agencies and that’s why they are not keen on doing that. 

And let me give you what I thought a wonderful example is, if I may.  There was a Web site on moving called “Moving” and it helped people who were moving house to do the change of address form, to move the electricity and the gas and the utilities over the telephone, to also hire perhaps a moving van and so forth.  It was a one-stop shop for all of this.  And it was a public-private partnership that made this all possible.  And it was a huge success.  People really loved this website. 

Government agencies realized that and they thought, gosh, this means there’s real traffic to be generated, and immediately what they did was to leave that umbrella, that one stop shop and created their own little shops in order to drive traffic to their own little shops.  Of course, the sun was really more – the sun was more than just the parts put together and once you take these parts apart and everybody has this little shop the consumers were really frustrated again and don’t want to go to 15 or 16 different websites in order to change their addresses.  The problem therefore is that when you breakdown the silos, you create value, when you resurrect the silos, you destroy value.  That’s something that government agencies theoretically understand, but have practical difficulties realizing and putting in place. 

But I am really more interested in another aspect.  I am really interested in the way by which government in the United States has now decided to make public a lot of the information that it collects.  My colleague and friend, Beth Novak, and others have really pushed this very hard in the Obama Administration and I think that’s exactly right.  What we need is more information that the government collects, not personal information, but general information to be shared with the public at large, with NGO’s, with the society at large so that they can then look at that data and really see what is happening in our society.  We now have the software tools to do that, we now have the interest in the public to do that, that’s why we need to move ahead and make more and more of that government information freely available.

Does the Obama Administration approach information technology differently than its predecessors?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Oh yes.  There’s a huge difference.  If you look at the website that the Obama Administration set up to be able to trace the money of the stimulus package going into the economy and you can see to which communities, which counties, to what companies and institutions, organizations, the money goes.  How much as been dispensed, what was the impact on employment and so forth.  This data is fabulously well designed and presented through a geographic interface and it is simply superb; very, very different from the previous administration.  In fact, the outgoing Clinton-Gore Administration put in place, for example, a website with the Environmental Protection Agency where the Environmental Protection Agency made accessible a self-reporting inventory of toxic waste and linked it to a geographic information system so that people could actually look at their neighborhood and see whether there were any toxic waste repositories in their neighborhood. 

When that went online, a lot of people started pressuring the companies in their neighborhood that had toxic waste to clean up and to get their act together because land value would adjust.  And so there was almost a wonderful market for this as well as a democratic force behind it.  Of course, the George W. Bush Administration, after 911, took the website down, ostensibly because of a security risk.  Terrorists could access the toxic waste **** and find out where the toxic waste was I this country.  I not so sure the security risk was really was that high.  I think a lot of people in the – I suspect a lot of people in the Bush Administration connected to some of the toxic wasters were quite happy to put that database offline.

Question: How might the eGovernment revolution affect international intelligence?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Well, first of all, if we permit people to have access to government information, we don’t necessarily become more vulnerable.  The cyber security task is mostly one focused on keeping the infrastructure up and running.  And we are very vulnerable there.  They’re very vulnerable not just on the internet information structure, but on the energy and electrical infrastructure as well.  And they’re vulnerable because for many years, even decades, we have increased the efficiency of the infrastructure, but limited the investment and the redundancy and robustness of the infrastructure.  And that makes all these infrastructures prime targets for hackers and terrorists around the world, whether they are organized by nation/state or whether they are non-combatant terrorists, Al Qaeda's ilk or anything else.  I think we need to spend more money on that.  I think we need to spend more money on securing the infrastructure, on knowing what the other side is doing.  The federal government does not have yet its act together on cyber-security.  That’s still a big problem, it will require all the major stakeholders to come together and it will require some legislative change as well and it will require a different mindset of the people. 

The missiles of tomorrow are not going to going to come through the sky; they’re coming through the fiber optic networks.

Recorded April 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen