The eGovernment Revolution

Question: How have advances in information technology \r\ntransformed government?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: For a very long period of time,\r\n starting in the 1960s and then into the 1970s, computers were seen as a\r\n way information technology in general was seen as a way of making \r\ngovernment bureaucracy more efficient and effective.  So, the drive was \r\nalways productivity, efficiency, doing more with less.  Maybe in the \r\n1990s or so, we had another dimension come into this picture and that is\r\n to be more consumer friendly, or citizen friendly in the services that \r\nthe government provides.  But these are just two very specific ways of \r\nlooking at how government interacts with society because it looks at the\r\n citizens as consumers as transactional partners with the government.  \r\nThey go for efficiency to lower the cost, or you go for consumer \r\nfriendliness or transactional partner friendliness in order to provide \r\nsome service quality. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the Obama Administration approach information \r\ntechnology differently than its predecessors?

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

When that went \r\nonline, a lot of people started pressuring the companies in their \r\nneighborhood that had toxic waste to clean up and to get their act \r\ntogether because land value would adjust.  And so there was almost a \r\nwonderful market for this as well as a democratic force behind it.  Of \r\ncourse, the George W. Bush Administration, after 911, took the website \r\ndown, ostensibly because of a security risk.  Terrorists could access \r\nthe toxic waste **** and find out where the toxic waste was I this \r\ncountry.  I not so sure the security risk was really was that high.  I \r\nthink a lot of people in the – I suspect a lot of people in the Bush \r\nAdministration connected to some of the toxic wasters were quite happy \r\nto put that database offline.

Question: How might the \r\neGovernment revolution affect international intelligence?

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Well, first of all, if we \r\npermit people to have access to government information, we don’t \r\nnecessarily become more vulnerable.  The cyber security task is mostly \r\none focused on keeping the infrastructure up and running.  And we are \r\nvery vulnerable there.  They’re very vulnerable not just on the internet\r\n information structure, but on the energy and electrical infrastructure \r\nas well.  And they’re vulnerable because for many years, even decades, \r\nwe have increased the efficiency of the infrastructure, but limited the \r\ninvestment and the redundancy and robustness of the infrastructure.  And\r\n that makes all these infrastructures prime targets for hackers and \r\nterrorists around the world, whether they are organized by nation/state \r\nor whether they are non-combatant terrorists, Al Qaeda's ilk or anything\r\n else.  I think we need to spend more money on that.  I think we need to\r\n spend more money on securing the infrastructure, on knowing what the \r\nother side is doing.  The federal government does not have yet its act \r\ntogether on cyber-security.  That’s still a big problem, it will require\r\n all the major stakeholders to come together and it will require some \r\nlegislative change as well and it will require a different mindset of \r\nthe people. 

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

Recorded April 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Government information should be made much more freely available.

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