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Digital Divides in Public Administration Practice

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Hatcher
September 8, 2015

In a recent article in Governing magazine, William Fulton describes how urban planners are “drowning in data.” Today, planners use data from a range of sources, such as 311 operations, mobile apps and website comments to name just a few. All of this data is causing an information overflow.

Fulton advocates for more bottom-up data or a democratization of data, where citizens, who are on the ground with access to information, supply data to the government. For many managers, the issue of too much data is a “good” problem, but research shows that when we are faced with too many choices (or data points), we often make poor decisions.

Many local governments, however, are not able to offer basic technology-based services and suffer from the issue of not enough data to help inform public decision-making processes. In these communities, local officials are struggling to offer basic technology-based tools to assist in the allocation of public resources and serve citizens. Accordingly, the main issue in local public administration may not be the problem of too much data, but rather the large divides between communities with technology-based tools and those without such tools.

Below are a few examples of digital divides in public administration:

A few years ago, I was involved in a project that showed me the digital divide between urban communities and rural areas. Our team was working to help local governments in the eastern part of Kentucky improve their Web presences. The goal of the project was to build local capacity to the point where most of the communities could create and run a website with e-government capabilities, such as online bill payment, citizen forums and other interactive tools.

In our work, we found that many of the rural communities lacked basic websites. For instance, only 37 percent of the cities in the region even had a website. Most of the websites were basic ones. We used a rubric from the scholarly literature to evaluate the city websites. We found that only four of the communities offered e-government services, such as online bill payment. Officials pointed to a lack of funding and in-house expertise as the main reasons why their communities were not able to create and maintain robust websites.

How can we bridge the rural divides in public administration?

Rural communities, like the ones we worked with in Eastern Kentucky, need financial assistance and in-house expertise. The communities realize the importance of using technology to communicate with citizens and help with decision-making, but they simply do not have the resources to provide the services.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) authorized $7.2 billion in funding to address this problem. However, most of this funding went to projects that were focused on promoting the use of broadband technologies, not helping communities build actual websites and other technology-based tools. Rural communities need more federal and state funding in order to build the tools that will give them access to needed data and help them interact with their citizens and potential residents.

Next, many communities lack in-house expertise. Here are several ways to address this problem:

  • First, the additional funding should require local governments to hire personnel that can help create and maintain websites, apps and other technologies that can improve governance.
  • Second, MPA programs need to help build capacity by incorporating information technology tools into curriculum. Courses on e-government, geographic information systems and data applications should be standard offerings in programs.
  • Last, MPA programs need to promote the usefulness of technology in public administration to our current students and in our outreach efforts to our communities. 

With these efforts, we can help narrow the digital divides in public administration and have more local governments faced with the issue of too much data.

Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor and director of the Master of Public Administration program at Georgia Regents University. He can be reached at [email protected]  (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)

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