Spring 2003

E-Government: Strategies for Community Technology Practitioners
by Laurie Lipper and Wendy Lazarus

When President Bush signed the E-Government Act of 2002 last December, he spotlighted an important and growing opportunity for community technology practitioners—the move toward putting public information, government services, and civic engagement programs online.

The act includes certain provisions that are especially relevant to community-based technology. For example, it calls for the creation of a federal Internet portal; an evaluation of best practices in community technology programs; the identification of ways to expand the use of best practices among community technology centers; and an online tutorial to teach individuals how to access government information and services on the Internet. The administration also plans to promote community technology programs as places where individuals can access online government resources.

While Congress appropriated less than the $45 million included in the E-Government Act, its decision to include $5 million for this fiscal year is a significant step toward putting government services and resources online.

In addition, some community-based technology programs are starting to develop e-government initiatives as avenues to simplify residents' use of government programs, to promote program sustainability, and to conduct advocacy. There have also been some promising efforts around civic engagement, helping residents register to vote online and tap the Web for vital citizen information.

While there is exciting potential for e-government to raise the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods, there are also risks in the move to do the business of government online. The relocation of information and services onto the Internet could further marginalize those without online access—or without the skills needed to use these online resources. Moreover, it is important to press the government to develop its content in ways that are needed and desired in underserved communities.

We at The Children's Partnership recognize that there is much at stake for low-income communities and for the community technology movement. We see this as an important moment to explore, analyze, and report on smart approaches to e-government for community technology. The Children's Partnership is working on three strategies that may be useful to you.

E-Government Services for Community Residents

The Children's Partnership, working with a consortium of community technology practitioners in California called the California Community Technology Policy Group (CCTPG), has researched and participated in efforts to connect e-government directly to community residents through technology programs.

One good example is the effort of eight community technology programs throughout California who used the November 2002 elections to help residents register to vote and learn about candidates and ballot measures via the Internet.  We worked with many partners, including: the Cyber Y Technology Center at the YMCA Youth and Family Services in San Diego to develop a simple election curriculum (called e-Lection), which technology programs interested in this form of e-government can use; the California Community Technology Policy Group for guidance on real world applicability and to help promote the initiative; and the Community Digital Initiative in Riverside to beta test the effort.

Every month, it seems, new opportunities emerge to use e-government to assist low-income clients. Community technology programs can coach participants in ways to use the Internet when, for example, they want to renew a driver's license, apply for enrollment in a public health insurance program, file for state disability or unemployment insurance, or renew a professional license. They can also help community users navigate the child support system, find affordable housing, or support for the elderly. The list continues to grow.

Tapping E-Government To Build and Sustain Community Technology Programs

Although the potential benefits of e-government are enormous, many in low-income communities are unaware of them or unaware of how to use them. Community technology programs can provide the coaching and technical assistance to residents at neighborhood centers as they attempt to use e-government services to meet their everyday needs.

The Children's Partnership, as part of its work with CCTPG, is helping develop a California statewide demonstration in which a handful of community technology programs would use their existing infrastructure to serve as E-Government Access & Efficiency Centers. Each program would have a trained E-Government Assistance staff person to show residents what they can accomplish online and answer their questions. Each would maintain a Web portal to centralize e-government services and track client use. If successfully launched, this pilot holds the potential to demonstrate the vital role community technology programs can play in extending the reach of e-government into underserved communities and in making the business of government more efficient

Ensuring That Government Information Meets the Needs of Low-Income and Other Underserved Communities

Ensuring that low-income communities benefit from e-government services will also require vigilance to ensure that the government information is presented in ways that address the needs of underserved communities.  The Children's Partnership published a comprehensive analysis of what content is most needed by low-income communities and updated the research in 2002.

Findings include:

Low-Income Americans Online: Twice as many low-income Americans now use the Internet as did two years ago—16.7 million, up from 7.8 million.  They are most interested in online resources that help them find employment, affordable housing, and deal with life's daily challenges.

Non-English Speakers: Today, an estimated 45 million Americans do not speak English at home, versus 32 million in 2000.  Many want information in languages other than English.

Those with Disabilities: An estimated 8.5% of Americans have at least one disability that requires special features on computers and the Internet to make these resources are accessible.

What Underserved Americans Want Online: Practical information focusing on local community; information at a basic literacy level; material in multiple languages; spaces for ethnic and cultural interests; interfaces and content accessible to people with disabilities; easier searching; and coaches to guide them.

As more government information and services migrate online, we must work together to make sure the content is developed and presented to be most effective for our communities.

TCP will continue to meet with policy-makers to brief them on this important issue and has made briefing materials available for community technology practitioners who would like to bring the importance of technology and useful content for underserved communities to the attention of their elected officials.

Contentbank.org Online Exchange: Technology Tools Connecting Citizens to Government

In June of 2002 The Children's Partnership (TCP) launched Contentbank.org, a Web site designed to spur the development of needed Internet content for low-income and underserved communities.

Contentbank.org has three major goals:

1. To identify what online content low-income users need, examples of what exists, and what still needs to be created;

2. To make it easier for community-based organizations and the individuals they serve to create their own content; and

3. To encourage the public and private sectors to develop useable content for low-income and underserved Americans.

One popular feature on Contentbank.org is our message board area, called the Online Exchange. We host periodic Exchanges focused on specific topics that our users have told us are important to them. The Online Exchange is designed to give our users the opportunity to exchange resources, ideas, curricula, and more.

The most recent Contentbank.org Online Exchange focused on how e-government initiatives are affecting the lives of underserved people. The Exchange also examined the role community-based organizations play in bringing e-government services to those individuals. The participants shared several local, national, and international resources and guidelines that community-based organizations can use as they develop e-government programs of their own.

Online Exchange participants presented their innovative e-government projects that included setting up "e-gov" centers where local residents use computer terminals to access online government services, register to vote, and connect to the democratic process.  Local e-government programs include Fairfax County, VA, the California Community Technology Policy Group, and the City of Seattle. On a national level, free online tax filing was reported as one of this year's biggest success stories. Participants also posted links to new services, e-government portals, e-government accessibility guidelines, and related research from Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Below are a few of the best resources from the exchange:

GovBenefits—The Labor Department launched this site in April 2002. It lets users answer 10 simple questions and find out for which federal programs they are potentially eligible.

Egov.gov—General information about e-government programs.

Section 508—Federal guidelines that require federal agencies' electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Urban Development and the Internet—A book-length report evaluating how five American cities have adopted Internet technologies to deal with issues of the economy and urban renewal. 

E-Government Handbook for Developing Countries (PDF)—A resource about e-government for developing and transitional countries that catalogs key e-government resources. HTML version

Also Available:
Complete Online Exchange and other E-government links from the TCP

The Children's Partnership is a national child advocacy organization that undertakes research, demonstration programs, and advocacy campaigns to help ensure that low-income and other underserved communities benefit from the "digital revolution." This article was prepared with the help of The Children's Partnership Technology Program Team: James Lau, Jackie Cruz Wagener, Mara Rose, Rachel Fireman, and Karen Roberts.

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