Less Government, More Web Services

On Apr. 27, the Obama Administration issued an executive order directing government agencies to devise a plan within 180 days to streamline operations while improving service and cutting costs. The mandate will force agencies to rethink how they provide service. Much of that effort will be directed toward the Web, a less costly tool than call centers or the scores and even hundreds of walk-in offices that some agencies maintain.

President Obama’s Administration has been at the forefront of using the Internet to help citizens sort through the thicket of government information and regulation. His Administration has set up new websites making government information more transparent, such as recovery.gov, which tracked the distribution of stimulus funds. Export.gov, managed by Commerce’s International Trade Administration, saves would-be exporters time and money by organizing 10 agencies’ and multiple companies’ export services around what these companies want to do to increase exports. This keeps exporters from having to hunt agency-by-agency or company-by-company for support services. Obama has even used such tools as Twitter to hold virtual town hall meetings.

While many government agencies are becoming more adept at using technology to do business and provide information to the populace, there are three factors that could slow progress—and simple steps that agencies can take to address them:

Many agencies simply have too many offices nationwide. For example, the Farm Service Agency in the Agriculture Dept. maintains 2,300 local offices for loan processing despite the fact that most of their customers routinely use the Web for their financial transactions. Instead, agencies should streamline and combine their mail, call centers, offices, and the Web into a single system that can be coordinated to move customers to less costly channels and improve service.


Instead of aggressively communicating with customers, most government agencies have adopted a "build it and they will come" attitude. Upfront investments in marketing and communications can not only speed the return on investment in technology, but also increase its magnitude. The IRS, for example, has actively promoted e-file and electronic payments and as a result has helped more than 60 percent of U.S. taxpayers get their refunds faster while saving millions of dollars.

The government has had to rely on mechanisms such as executive orders to drive change because it lacks basic financial incentives and metrics that are familiar in the private sector. Agencies should build incentives into the fabric of their organization, adopting metrics that both monitor and motivate cost savings and improvement in customer service. Many electric utilities, for example, use local comparisons of energy usage as "social proof" to encourage energy conservation. Federal agencies could employ similar marketing tactics to influence customers to make use of the Web or undertake activities that will benefit them, while reducing government costs.

There is a long way to go, and in the coming age of budget fights many agencies may simply duck and cover. But those farseeing agency CIOs and managers determined not simply to survive austerity but to thrive in it, could reinvent how government works with its citizens on a scale that causes the commercial world to take note.

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