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Digital Government – The Big Deal About Big Bird

Welcome to “New Media & Practice,” a new monthly column exploring  digital government and the use of  digital technology in civic engagement.  This column will discuss emerging research and practice in  modern government’s use of digital media –social media, mobile and web-based technologies. We will examine how digital media is changing the business of government, explore what the public expects when government uses these technologies, and delve into how we can tell if digital media are truly helping to improve governance and civic engagement. These are some of the questions that we will tackle here in the coming months.  We hope that you will join us here and we invite your comments and questions about digital government.  


Why you should care about digital media and mobile technology:

Like it or not, digital media and mobile technologies are a fundamental part of our lives.

  • As of March 2012, 46% of American adults were smartphone owners – up from 35% in May 2011.
  • In 2011, global smartphone shipments exceeded personal computer shipments for the first time in history
  • Nearly 1 billion people had mobile broadband subscriptions in 2011 and it expected to grow to over 5 billion globally in 2016.
  • Within the next three years, more Americans will access the Internet via mobile devices than desktop PCs. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/egov/digital-government/digital-government.html.

This is the environment of 21st century government- an  age of mobile technology where citizens readily tweet about their experiences and post YouTube videos that call attention to public sector foibles. A video of seniors narrowly dodging traffic at a busy intersection can go  viral and ignite a previously unknown policy demand.

As practitioners and academics, we are faced with either whole-heartedly trying to tame the beast of digital government or tentatively petting it.  We have plenty of reason to be cautious. First, though the technologies are established, digital government is still in its infancy. Second, it isn’t cheap! The resource demands of establishing digital government and maintaining it during austere fiscal times are daunting.  Consequently, many digital government efforts are rudimentary, using existing platforms and venues to establish a presence  Adding ‘Like us on Facebook!’ to our web-pages is the new requirement for internet-presence. Though beyond mere presence, government has been ill-equipped to facilitate the growing demands that the trend toward the increasing use of mobile technology has made on it (Yelton, 2012, http://www.alatechsource.org/taxonomy/term/106/bridging-the-digital-divide-with-mobile-services).


What about Big Bird?

Local government, with a  direct connection to  citizens, has struggled most with social media. Local administrators openly question whether  social media is just another headache or if it is actually a viable solution for dispersing information.  Consider the social media universe’s response  during the Presidential debate. Governor Mitt Romney made a statement about cutting funding for PBS and its signature character Big Bird. The comment reportedly generated an immediate response on Twitter of more than 17,000 tweets a minute http://www.hlntv.com/video/2012/10/04/twitter-debate-pictures-hashtags-mario-armstrong.  This isn’t just about Big Bird’s popularity. It’s about the ability of social media to nearly instantaneously galvanize the public and give citizens a loud and clear policy-altering voice  The potential here is immense. We can  imagine the responses local governments could receive if they  tracked social media  trending information during meetings.  Yet, what is the value of this real-time information availability? Is it a fair representation of citizen perceptions? To answer these questions, we must develop a better understanding of the public’s needs and wants for digital government.


Digital Government = Efficient Government?

Clearly there are still many steps to go along the digital government path. We must consider how to create digital communication avenues that streamline the way  government informs the public and allows the public to give feedback to government. All of this must be accomplished with efficiency, oversight, and in partnership with the private-sector (broadband providers, cloud providers, software designers, hardware designers). Public managers must also find the right people to join the digital government and social media conversation (http://www.govloop.com). The digital generation is speaking and its voices have resonated around the world (http://www.tgdaily.com/software-features/58426-arab-spring-really-was-social-media-revolution). Today’s public managers  realize the transition facing the public sector and are beginning to react. The federal Office of E-Government & Information Technology, an arm of the President’s Office of Management and Budget, provides leadership for those looking to get their feet wet (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/e-gov). Another excellent resource for local government can be found at (http://icma.org/en/icma/knowledge_network/topics/kn/Topic/77/Egovernment).

It all comes back to effective and efficient public services.  Steps are being taken to identify efficiency. According to the Digital Government website at Whitehouse.gov, efficiency in digital government should accomplish three things:

  1. enable the public to access high-quality digital information and services anywhere, anytime, and on any device;
  2. ensure the opportunity to procure and manage all digital devices, applications, and data in smart, secure and affordable ways;
  3. and use government data in a way that spurs innovation and improves quality of services for the American people  http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/egov/digital-government/digital-government.html.


Exploring Our Next Steps

However neatly presented here, achieving these goals will require a great deal of time, expertise, and resources to make each of them a reality. There is no easy path toward fully embracing the potential of digital government. Effectiveness may be even more  difficult to determine. The first task is determining what we mean by effective digital government. The determinants of effectiveness are vast; there is an army of metrics –speed, accuracy, ease of accessibility, load time, opinions in the Twittersphere. There are also a host of e-analytics tools  currently used by the private sector that could be harnessed to assess effectiveness (Google Analytics (www.google.com/analytics/), clicky (www.getclicky.com), bitly (www.bitly.com), PeopleBrowsr and (www.peoplebrowsr.com) currently are popular options). It will take time to figure it all out. In the meantime, public managers can move forward, one step at a time. Tweeting emergency broadcasts? Check. Streaming council meetings? Check. Podcasting informative clips? Check. Processing payments via smart phones? Check. Many local governments are already engaged in harnessing the power of digital government and mobile technology.  Subsequently, Fiorenza has identified  five ways that social media has transformed government .

The roadmap of digital government is still being drawn and we are all charting the paths that work best for our communities.  The destination is clear: accessibility to government wherever and whenever it is possible.


Digital media are reshaping government. For public managers,  the question remains, how can we effectively adapt to this new paradigm and improve governance for our citizens? Please join us next month for our next column, which will explore the challenges and benefits of accessibility in the era of digital government.


Authors: Hillary J. Knepper, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Pace University; Christopher J. Godfrey, Ph.D. Director, Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute Department of Psychology, Pace University; Sylvia Auguste, & Pat Moroney, Pace University MPA Graduate Student Students. Email Contact: [email protected]


Image courtesy of: http://www.freeimageslive.com/galleries/transtech/informationtechnology/pics/nebook_type.jpg

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