- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2000

Revolutions typically arise on the power of an idea. The business plan comes later. By the time Thomas Paine published "Common Sense" in 1776, the American Revolution was well underway. Paul Revere had made his ride and shots had echoed across the hillsides of Lexington and Concord. Nonetheless, Paine's incendiary pamphlet became America's greatest best-seller in history (based on per capita readership) because it clarified for the colonists the ultimate goal of their struggle a clean break from British rule and establishment of a fully independent government. Such an outcome, Paine argued, made such ideological, practical and commercial sense it was "an event which sooner or later must arrive."

So it is with the Internet revolution. On every level ideological, practical and commercial it's here, it's real and it's transforming, as Newsweek recently put it, "how Americans live, think, talk and love," as well as how leaders govern, and how citizens interact with their governments.

The only reason for trepidation is a fairly significant one. In Paine's own words: "No plan is yet laid down." In just a few years, the term "e-government" has attained conversational status in political circles. But a real definition remains elusive. To most of us, the term suggests little more than another Web site to read about job openings on the state payroll, or perhaps a new way to pay parking tickets, or receive professional certification as a CPA or real estate agent.

Not that those are incidental applications. Governments can save 70 percent of their costs by moving services from over-the-counter to online. Arizona, as one example, saves $5 every time a driver goes to the Internet to renew a vehicle registration. Just as important, the application gives citizens an unprecedented level of convenience, and is a priceless demonstration of the state's efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

But as in the private sector, it's early. Today's e-government applications, by and large, represent the very first buds of a far more auspicious transformation one that has less to do with the technology itself than with the leadership of elected officials; their ability to envision new models for the entire spectrum of politics and governance; and their willingness to drive the hard work of institutional change.

Eventually governments will offer hundreds, even thousands of services online. Apply this rule: If it can be on the Internet, it will be.

The Internet gives us the capability to redefine how we participate in basic things like the electoral process. Not just campaigns and fund-raising, but voter registration and elections themselves all are possible online. An electronic government can foster community relations and promote economic development. Once an aggregating e-government strategy is in place, starting with citizen services, the marginal cost of adding community service components is low. The availability of educational programs, outreach programs, community groups and civic associations is a crucial component of the e-government that's coming. It's coming slowly. But it's coming. Government has not embraced networked technologies as rapidly as the private sector. But just as there's no longer any question that every enterprise functions inside a networked economy, and every citizen lives in a networked world, the rise of electronic government and governance will happen.

Now the revolution needs what all revolutions need: leadership. According to studies carried out by the Kennedy School of Government, this leadership must come in the form of a "center of gravity" for technology policy and strategy. It must be strong enough to push the digital transformation of government operations forward; nimble enough to navigate around the impact these changes will have on existing laws and public policy; and farsighted enough to assure that every member of the community has access to the technology needed to participate in the revolution.

Political leaders who are slow to grasp the power of the Internet to spread democracy more pervasively will find themselves in the same position as the French revolutionary known as Mirabeau. When he spotted his people surging up a Paris street he remarked: "I must run to catch up with those people because I am their leader."

More than 200 years later, that's still about the size of it. As the next millennium arrives with 20 million Americans on the Internet, and 62,000 more coming online every day so too must public officials who are ready to lead their part of this modern revolution, and manage the transition to e-government.

Christopher G. Caine is vice president for government programs at IBM.

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