TCS Daily

One Sexy Issue

By Sonia Arrison - January 23, 2003 12:00 AM

E-government is not usually considered sexy, which may be why this important topic has received little scrutiny. But first appearances aside, it could become problematic if ignored by those who believe in limited government.

Like the seemingly bipartisan issue of privacy, e-government - the use of technology in government - is something that everyone appears to support. Indeed, although they could oppose each other in the next presidential election, President Bush gleefully signed the E-government Act of 2002, introduced in 2001 by Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman. Such general agreement among politicians is something that should always raise eyebrows.

Yes, e-government can mean the use of technology to make government services more efficient and easier to access. But e-government can also mean new ways to deliver new and expanded services. For advocates of limited government, this is something to watch carefully.

The new e-government Act authorizes $345 million over four years for interagency e-government projects, establishes an Office of Electronic Government within the Office of Management and Budget, and requires government agencies to conduct privacy impact assessments for new IT systems that contain personal information. Missing from this list of the Act's key provisions is a detailed explanation of accountability measures - an oversight that most career politicians are probably happy to ignore.

This raises the question of whether e-government is desirable. The potential benefits are clear. If government waste and obfuscation can be reduced using technology, everyone will be better off.

Consider the promising artificial intelligence program that's been developed to help catch government corruption, like California's scandal over the no-bid Oracle deal. And government use of technology is to be lauded when it makes it possible to easily access public information and avoid tiresome DMV lines. But there is a potential downside.

As government becomes more hi-tech and easier to deal with, citizens may grow to like government more and, because of that, government will grow. Clearly this isn't a concern for those who want to use government to engineer society, but for those aware of the dangers in that process, this sound alarms.

The key question here is: will e-government grow government?

Generally, economics tells us that as the cost for something decreases, the demand increases. Therefore, one would expect that as it becomes easier for people to find out if they qualify for a government subsidy, the number of people applying for and receiving the subsidy would increase. If you believe government is already too big, this is a frightening concept, but not necessarily an inevitable outcome.

While it's true that government could use technology to make it easier for citizens to access services, it's also true that government is necessarily a slave to politics. As such, "disinterested bureaucrats" will never be running government programs. Government will continue to be inefficient, albeit in different ways after the introduction of technology, and prone to scandals that will moderate faith in public servants.

Americans' suspicion of government and belief in self-sufficiency make it uncertain that e-government is the slippery slope to socialism. Perhaps because of their history, Americans instinctively know that politics does not equate with fairness and they disdain handouts. These are two reasons for optimism, but e-government is coming whether we like it or not.

It would be a miracle if government acted on its own to use technology to shrink itself and become more accountable. Whether government shrinks or grows with the introduction of e-government, and whether it becomes more or less accountable, will rely partly upon the American spirit and partly upon which people are engaging in the debate.

Until now, the majority of voices concerning e-government have been government expansionists. Those who advocate limited government should wake up and join the fray. If they don't, government meddling in our lives is likely to grow.

Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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