Happy Birthday, World Wide Web

In its 25 years, the Internet has drastically changed how government works.

Flickr/Niklas Morberg
Just 25 years ago this month, a British computer scientist wrote a proposal spelling out an innovative notion that eventually evolved into the World Wide Web. At the time, the proposal was intended to help CERN, a European research organization, make internal communications more efficient. Even though the underpinnings of the idea for the World Wide Web were right there, “nobody at the time thought it was very important,” recalled Internet pioneer Paul Mockapetris.

What does this little history lesson have to do with government management? Everything. We first started covering state and local government around the same time as that Web memo was written. A few years later, we visited what was then called an online “forum” about government. A little more than a decade after that, the Web had become the most essential tool in our work—and increasingly that of state and local governments.

In a thoughtful email, Marc Holzer, dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers-Newark, provided us with a few elements of this dramatic evolution: 

  • “Information now flows much more rapidly inside municipal and state governments and at lower costs,” he wrote. “Viewing information as an important resource or source of ‘power,’ rapid collection and sharing of data implicitly changes the structure of government from ‘top-down and hierarchal,’ to ‘bidirectional and flat.’”
  • “Municipal and state governments have become more sensitive to their external environments. Government’s relationship to stakeholders is rapidly moving from ‘governing’ to ‘servicing’; from ‘government-centric’ to ‘citizen-centric’; from ‘accepting changes inactively’ to ‘actively seeking changes.’”
“By collecting and sharing information, the Internet helps citizens to obtain information and knowledge about public issues much faster and more comprehensively than before.”

And that’s just the beginning. Internet access to an office’s computers has made it far easier for employees to telecommute, notes Helen Purcell, the Maricopa County, Ariz., recorder. This is a particular benefit in states or cities in which there’s a potentially long travel time to the statehouse or city hall. For many citizens, some of the most obvious management benefits of the Web are the wide variety of services that can now be provided online. It wasn’t so long ago that people were pretty darn impressed when they could look up the address and phone number of the appropriate state or city office to get a document. The next step was the seemingly magical ability to print out a form, fill it out by hand and then send it back by regular mail. That’s all history. Now there are a wide range of citizen/government interactions which can be entirely completed without leaving a laptop or tablet.

“The transformation of service delivery is remarkable,” says Don Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a Governing columnist. The list starts with abandoned vehicle notifications; procurement of birth, marriage and death certificates; and professional license renewals. It goes on and on to hunting and fishing licenses, online filing of taxes, automobile registration renewals, driver’s license renewals, payment of court fines and fees, dog licenses, park passes, background checks, traffic ticket payments, unemployment claim filings, and absentee ballot filings. You name it, Web access has changed it.

There is a downside to the transformation. People have become so conditioned to the smooth functioning of online service that “they expect the experience to be clean and flawless, and they expect quick and effective results,” Kettl says. Exhibit A: Consider how shocked—shocked!—the American public was that Affordable Care Act sites were initially full of glitches and database potholes.

Great expectations are only one issue. Despite all the advances that the World Wide Web has brought to states and localities over the past 25 years, one of the anniversary gifts has an unmistakable resemblance to Pandora’s Box. A few of the demons that are emerging

  • Access to libraries full of information may seem appealing, but there’s a real risk that stakeholders can suffer from data overload, making it even more difficult to winnow down the material they really need. “While one chocolate chip cookie is great,” says Drummond Kahn, director of audit services in Portland, Ore., “40,000 all at once may not be as appetizing.”
  • Though the phrase “digital divide” seems a little old fashioned, the nation still lacks “viable strategies to connect with the 19 percent of Americans who for various reasons are not digitally included,” Holzer says. What happens to the one out of five Americans who can’t effectively interact with an Internet-based government?
Mounting concern about cybersecurity makes it one of the very top issues in many cities and states. While most of the successful attacks on computers, via the Web, have been privacy based—and that’s bad enough—there’s the potential for mayhem if public-sector computer systems shut down. Consider losing all the stop lights in New York City. “The attacks on personal information and proprietary information will drive government and the technology providers to invest more [for] innovative security solutions,” says Teri Takai, the former CIO of Michigan and California, and currently CIO for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Then Takai asks an alarming rhetorical question: “Will governments be able to keep up?”

Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.