TCS Daily


Making Gray Davis Accountable

By Sonia Arrison - May 30, 2002 12:00 AM

California's Governor Gray Davis is in hot water over his acceptance of $25,000 from Oracle Corporation following the state's no-bid $95 million dollar e-government deal with the company. And while the governor probably wishes he had never heard of e-government, Americans want more of it in the form of e-accountability.

E-government -- using technology to make government more efficient -- has received a lot of lip service over the past couple of years. Homeland security director Tom Ridge says he's "convinced e-government will change society" and Senator Joseph Lieberman is known to wax poetic about e-government's "transformative potential."

Given these comments, one might be excused for thinking that the "dot-gov revolution" -- the next American Revolution as some have called it -- will be some sort of magic event that will usher in a new era of responsible government. But as the California government's Oracle debacle clearly shows, giving a bunch of overpriced computer systems to uninterested government bureaucrats does not guarantee increased efficiency or responsibility.

According to California's state auditor, the e-government contract that California signed with Oracle (and has since sought to cancel) would have wasted $41 million taxpayer dollars. But all is not completely lost for proponents of e-government.

There's a new move afoot to use technology to give Americans what they want: greater government accountability. According to a recent poll commissioned by the Council for Excellence in Government "making government more accountable was Americans' biggest hope for e-government last year (36 percent) and it remains their biggest hope today (30 percent)."

A company called eNeuralNet aims to answer this call with its political accountability software program called Minutes-N-Motion. The software, which uses artificial intelligence, was originally developed when the company's founder, Murray Craig, was upset that his local government ignored his pleas to stop polluters of a salmon habitat on his property.

When Craig received an unusually cool reception from local government officials on a number of occasions, he began looking in public documents for reasons the government was unresponsive. It was during this investigation that the idea for a smart program to identify government corruption was born, and indeed Craig's program helped him spot improper government behavior. Now, a few years later, eNeuralNet has donated this software to the new digital democracy lab at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.

Pepperdine professor Mike Shires runs the new lab and says that there are plans to eventually replicate the program at numerous universities around the country. While e-government has been the subject du jour for a lot of politicians, Shires says that the accountability aspect is a "part of e-government that's been ignored."

Asked whether the Minutes-N-Motion software would have alerted voters to the fact that Oracle Corporation donated $25,000 to Governor Davis's campaign shortly after his government awarded the corporation a $95 million dollar no-bid contract, professor Shires was refreshingly restrained. Although eNeuralNet claims that it can "detect government corruption in five minutes," Shires explained that first someone would have to set up a search that looks for these types of problems.

And it's not only a matter of initiating the search. Sometimes getting the data -- even if it is public -- can be difficult. Governments can refuse to put it online or be slow at releasing it. One of the greatest challenges for the accountability program is "convincing city council members to agree to this," Shires said.

After weeks of blaming Governor Davis for California's "pay-to-play" political environment, staffers for gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon were upbeat about the possibilities of such a program. "It's encouraging to know that technology might enhance our ability to hold people in government accountable, and perhaps the need has never been greater than it is now," said Simon staffer Frank Prewoznik.

E-government may well wind up changing society to a certain extent, but it is important to realize that e-government will only progress as far as its human actors allow. If Americans want more accountability in government, they will still have to demand it and politicians will have to deliver.

Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. She can be reached at sarrison@pacificresearch.org.
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