The U.S. may have invented the Internet and pioneered what’s now known as e-government, but we haven’t cornered the market on good ideas. Just ask Theresa Pardo, director of the State University of New York’s Center for Technology in Government. Pardo, who routinely advises foreign governments on tech-related issues, says governments the world over are grappling with the same issues, including transparency and citizen services. As a result, a lot of good ideas come from abroad.
This past October, the center hosted a global conference on public-sector technology that drew more than 300 leaders from more than 50 countries. A number of best e-gov practices emerged during the three-day conference, and I asked Pardo to share a few of her favorites. Her picks run the gambit from educational applications to immigration issues:
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• In the oil-rich, Mideast nation of Oman, primary and secondary education is free and widely available. But higher education isn’t as accessible -- at least not yet. Oman’s Ministry of Education recently created a Web portal that gives students a central location for applying to the nation’s colleges and universities. Among other things, the portal -- the Higher Education Admission Center -- was designed to give all applicants a fair shot at attending college, regardless of social status or where they live. To do that, the ministry created a standard admissions procedure for all higher education institutions and put everything related to college admissions online, eliminating the need to apply in person or have inside knowledge to navigate the process. The site awards college placement based on students’ exam results and educational interest.
• Different terminology and measuring methods make data analysis a challenge anywhere. In Austria, the federal government wants to make that easier. That’s why they’ve undertaken a project to establish a common “data language.” Already, the Austrian federal government has developed standard data descriptions that must be used by states, ministries and agencies that contribute to the country’s open data Web portal. These common descriptions -- known as metadata -- are crucial to the usability of the data, providing details like what subjects the data covers, the language in which it’s written and how it was collected. While the concept may seem obvious, it’s not easy to get multiple data contributors to agree to common terms. With the federal standards now in place, Austria is working on standardization agreements with Germany and Switzerland, which would make the Austrian portal a single source for comparable government data from all three nations.
• In the European Union, immigration policy is largely set by each country. For that reason, it’s not very coherent. That’s where Puzzled by Policy comes into play. It’s a website created by a coalition of European organizations to explain and engage citizens in the development of a more unified E.U. immigration policy. The site offers interactive and multimedia content that explains immigration issues and lets users voice their own opinions. For instance, an online poll gathers opinions on a series of immigration topics and then gives users a report on how their views compare to those of E.U. policymakers. Citizens can easily embed the survey tool in their own Facebook pages and blogs to prompt broader discussion. Poll results are forwarded to policymakers, who also are encouraged to participate in live online forums hosted by the site.
• For every kid who walks to and from school, there’s a set of parents who worry about that kid’s safety. Feet First, a website created by the New Zealand Transport Agency, aims to keep kids safer as they walk to school. The site offers safety-related course materials for teachers and collects student-submitted stories -- all aimed at raising awareness of potential hazards. One of its more interesting activities is an annual competition for primary and secondary students. Kids submit multimedia depictions of how to make their journey to school safer, and the winners -- and their schools -- get cash prizes.
These sites have been tailored to meet the needs of their specific users, but the concepts are universal. School safety, educational equality and government transparency are critical issues for U.S. policymakers. Given those realities, there may very well be some ideas on this list worth importing.