Technicity Times
    Issue 4 • November 2003

The Other Side of the Divide

Dissatisfied Customers Find a Voice

From E-Government to Online Activism

by Barry Tavlin

Recently I had the exciting opportunity to meet with many of Europe's leaders in the field of E-Government. For people involved in Community Technology, E-Government may be something new, but it is closely related to the work of CTCs and to the Community Technology movement.

E-Government - 2003

Right now you're probably wondering, "What is E-Government and why should I care?" Like many people, you've probably used it but not talked about it. And, interestingly, among the people who do talk about it, there are many different viewpoints and definitions about what it is and what it should be.

Most people agree that it involves taking the basic interactions that you have with government and enabling them through the Internet. So you can pay your parking tickets online, request various forms or actually fill out the forms online, find out about important deadlines, read meeting minutes, or find out about various policies and regulations. By moving these things online, the government makes it quicker, easier, and cheaper to deliver some basic services to the citizens.

For many people, this improved delivery of services is the beginning and end of E-Government. There is a clear economic case for it, making it easy to justify. And in this era when the government is trying to get more business-like, it makes good "business sense" to treat citizens like customers, and for governments to think about "Citizen Relationship Management" like businesses think about "Customer Relationship Management".

Some people, including the current Bush administration, take the business approach even further. As described in a recent report from the Office of Management and Budget, the Bush administration wants to apply state-of-the-art business management techniques to deliver better government service in four areas:
" Government-to-Citizen interactions, as above;
" Government-to-Business interactions, making it easier for businesses to deal with the government;
" Government-to-Government interactions, making it easier for different levels of government to share information more efficiently;
" Internal efficiencies, making government workers more productive so they can serve the public better.

Some people emphasize the business aspect even more strongly. At the recent E-Government conference in Germany, several of the main presentations focused on how E-Government programs can make Europe more efficient and therefore more competitive in the world economy. Several of the governments represented there have ambitious plans to move major government services online by 2005. Several of the European countries are more advanced in E-Government than we are in the states.

Still other people have a different approach. At the 2003 Political Marketing Conference in London, some of the presenters (including your humble editor) looked at E-Government from the standpoint of E-Democracy - getting beyond the necessary tasks of delivery of services and economic efficiencies to the task of using the technology to foster democracy and civic engagement. The Internet is a powerful tool to facilitate communication, and communication is critical in a democracy. A government is more than just a business, and citizens are more than customers.

For people involved in Community Technology, this is no small point. Many of us and many of our stakeholders are dissatisfied customers, dissatisfied citizens. Just as people in government and business are attempting to shape E-Government in the image of business, people in Community Technology can raise their voices and attempt to shape E-Government into something to foster equality, democracy and access for all. And they can use the Internet to help them in this process.

This important work is already under way. In Issue 2 of Technicity Times there was an article about a democratic E-Government initiative sponsored by the California Community Technology Policy Group during the November, 2002 elections. (Click here to review the article.) This pilot project was a great illustration of how CTCs can help strengthen civic engagement through the use of E-Government programs like online voter registration. Let's hope for more projects like this one in the future.

E-Activism, 2003

Closely related to E-Government are efforts to do political campaigning, advocacy and activism online. This year we've seen remarkable advances in online activism and campaigning. In the last issue of Technicity Times, we commented on the tremendous role of the Internet in helping to organize a worldwide anti-war movement overnight. And since that issue, we've seen another remarkable development - the emergence of the Howard Dean campaign for president, fueled in large part by his use of the Internet.

By now all the major media have reported on how Howard Dean emerged from being a relatively unknown candidate to being the Democratic Party's front-runner and its best-funded candidate. In this era of monopolized media and Big Money selection of candidates, this accomplishment is simply unprecedented. And whether or not Dean ultimately gets the nomination, his campaign will have a lasting impact on our political life.

How did he do it? He used the Internet as a tool to help his supporters from around the country to get organized and take the initiative on his behalf. Specifically, through the use of Meetup.com, MoveOn.org and some new community-building software that was produced, and the use of BLOGs - online Web Logs - the campaign was able to unleash tens of thousands of supporters, almost overnight. And he was able to generate enough grass roots donations to surpass all the other candidates and become the front-runner.
(By way of full disclosure, let me add that I am not a Dean supporter, and also I am not convinced that he will get the nomination. Still, I think there are tremendous lessons to be learned from his campaign.)

As would be expected, when other candidates saw these results, they too started to have a stronger online presence. But they have not captured the excitement and creative energy of the Dean campaign, not yet, anyway. Why not?

The way that the Dean campaign has been run is new, fresh, and creative. Most importantly, it reveals a trust in the people - the supporters, the activists - to understand the issues and in a sense to become organizers for the campaign. This happened on dozens of BLOGs, through Meetup.com, and in various online and offline tactics. And the campaign came to life. You can get a taste of this at Dean's web site BLOG, http://www.blogforamerica.com.

On the other hand, the other candidates have been running more traditional campaigns. Even candidates whose platforms and message are more 'progressive' or 'empowering' or 'liberal' or 'democratic' have so far run their campaigns in the normal centralized, top-down manner, and they haven't engaged people the way Dean's campaign has. The results speak for themselves.

Of course, there are lots of factors in the elections, not just use of the Internet. And there's no telling what the mood of the country will be for the next election, who will vote, and how the Internet will play a role in the election itself. But one thing is clear - the political process got a big wake-up call when grass roots activists were able to take the initiative through the Internet. And many "dissatisfied customers" have found a way to make their dissatisfaction known and get organized to do something about it.


Barry Tavlin consults on Internet Technology and Strategy. He can be reached at btavlin@technicitytimes.com .

 

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