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User-friendly government

CAN SMART use of the Internet make government more user-friendly?

Yes, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told the nation's governors meeting in Las Vegas.

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Clicking on a laptop computer, he showed examples of advanced, inventive government Internet use -- including an interactive Florida page on safety for children.

Citizens can and should be able to use the Internet, said Mr. Gates, to renew auto tags, change a driver's license address, or review home sales on their street to see if their property taxes are fair.

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He cited Wisconsin's "vendor net" that lists state government contracts and purchase requests and lets businesses bid for them right online.

With intelligent use of the Internet, he argued, we can be spared long waits in line at agency offices or being left on hold when we call in for information. We can keep up with government, communicate with legislators more often and effectively than we'd ever have a chance to in person.

Mr. Gates asked to have all of Microsoft's own paper forms brought to him and said he "was stunned at the amount of bureaucracy that had grown up in my own company." There were hundreds upon hundreds of forms, for everything from payroll options to United Way giving options.

In six months' time, Mr. Gates claims, all but six forms were transferred to computer -- and those were forms the federal government still requires in paper. Now Microsoft workers can log on to see how much vacation time they have coming, change their retirement account contributions, even learn how charities are using the money they contributed.

So are we indeed ready for a more paperless society -- and government? Well, why not?

As the software gets better, we should be able to type in any kind of question -- from local trash recycling rules to finding restaurants with health code violations -- and be guided easily to the right information.

And there's no reason that screens on government information systems couldn't give us a complaint, inquiry or application form that citizens can fire right back to the appropriate agency, whether it's the Internal Revenue Service, the state highway department or local parks and recreation.

Baffling menus

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Except for some model programs, we're not there yet. Too often software is touted to be much better than it is. Go online and you can easily be trapped by ambiguous choice menus or other software Catch-22s. Many government Internet home pages are static, not the least bit interactive.

But early telephone lines crackled with static. Autos used to have endless flats and break down every few miles. That the Internet is still highly imperfect doesn't diminish the fact that it's the most important invention of the late 20th century.

Early government breakthroughs are possible and imperative. Indeed, with constant attention and improvement, good Internet connections and programming might take some of the edge out of Americans' historic antipathy for government.

Governments do face risks, of course. Wisconsin's Gov. Tommy Thompson raised the thorny obsolescence question. How does a state protect itself, he asked, against investing hundreds of millions in some system only to find new technology has rushed past it in a couple of years?

Mr. Gates' canny enough answer was that both computers and software will keep on getting about 40 percent faster every year -- so don't plan on longer than a three- or four-year cycle.

The exception, he added, is investment in fiber-optic cable -- it won't lose value, it's "a future-proof investment."

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The governor shot back: "Can I take that to the bank?" Mr. Gates' reply: "Sure."

The other sure-fire proposition is that government-on-the-Internet will only grow, and with it the question of cyber-age "haves" and "have-nots" based on class and income. Inequity in access is "a real danger," Mr. Gates acknowledged to the governors.

The first and best antidote, he said: getting Internet-connected computers into all schools and libraries.

Governor Thompson boasted to the meeting about a $500 million investment in the next two years to hook up "every library, every nursing home, every university and school in the state of Wisconsin with the newest technology."

We should expect more such efforts across the country.

With public budgets in the best shape they've been for years because of the booming economy, one pressure on government will be for sharply upgraded, citizen-responsive access to departments, including sharply improved inquiry, complaint and filing forms. The second pressure will be for more universal access.

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We should be hurrying to provide both.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/18/97


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