President-elect Obama promised during his campaign to create a “Google for government.” Now that he’s on his way to the White House, let’s imagine what this might look like, and how such a tool could change the way people relate to those tasked with running our country. The first image this phrase brings to mind is some sort of search engine that would allow citizens to see what the government is doing, especially how it’s spending money. While useful, it’s not enough, as it lacks a key element: a personalized front end for government services. Think “Amazon for government,” where a vast array of products and data is personalized and displayed in simplified form. Many people view the government, the federal government specifically, as a remote entity that imposes taxes and provides little tangible benefit in return. There is an opportunity here to fundamentally alter the relationship between government and citizen to be more like that of a customer and vendor.
What I would like to see is my.gov, where I can go to get a snapshot view of government services I use or for which I am eligible. By way of comparison, consider banks, most of which now offer sophisticated web services that aggregate financial data from many sources (deposit accounts, credit cards, investments, mortgage, etc.) and display them on a financial dashboard.
What would a dashboard for government look like? It could include, among, other things:
- A summary of your current social security account, projected benefits, etc. (you get one of these in the mail each year, no reason the same data can’t be delivered via web)
- Your IRS account, including a summary of what’s been paid in, contact information for your account rep, links to online filing forms, etc.
- Stats about recent projects funded in your vicinity, so you can see how federal funds are being spent in your area.
- Stats such as treasury bond yields and a current balance sheet for the government as a whole.
- Votes by your elected officials in Congress, compared against other districts, averages, etc.
- White House decisions or court rulings
- Support for RSS and other push/alert mechanisms
The point is that given the right tools, you could build a portal that provides you with personalized information about government services you are enrolled in and mandates and rulings that affect you by pulling in data from various systems behind the scenes. It might start out with just a few pieces of info, but could be expanded over time. The key is personalization, with an emphasis on customer service, so users visit frequently.
In the long run, the goal should be to build something that is a cross between Amazon (for viewing and managing government services) and Google (for finding and managing information, such as funded projects in your district). Whether they be average citizens or those whose job it is to track the government, the idea is to build an interface that makes government more transparent and more like a vendor or service provider, rather than a faceless abyss for taxpayer dollars
This practice of aggregating information from many sources and providing tools for personalizing a site to meet individual needs is old hat for those of us in the web industry. The Obama administration would do well to commission people from companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and others to draw up wireframes of what my.gov could be, as well as a strategy for building a first-generation version of it. My guess is that, if allowed to experiment, a skunkworks team could build an impressive site in not much time. After all, Silicon Valley’s leading companies and sites were built using paltry amounts of money and on far more limited timeframes compared to federal projects (the Dept. of Homeland Security, for example).
The most important benefit of such a system, apart from improving accessibility and customer service, would be to recast the relationship between taxpayer and government. If the user can see direct relationships between taxes paid in, and services provided or benefits delivered to his or her community, it will become clear that government is not as wasteful as it may first seem, and that it does many things that most people are unaware of.
I think we’re entering a period of great change, one comparable to that of FDR. It would be a great thing if we could apply what we’ve learned from the past decade in web commerce to build similar interfaces for government services and statistics. The result for us as taxpayers — more transparency and better service — would be a win for everyone involved.