Our Tangled Web

Surfing for info about the city and county? Good luck.

Memphis and Shelby County governments spend about $25 million a year on computer technology, but where are the results?

Their Web sites are digital representations of the governments themselves -- almost impossible to navigate, confusing, and cumbersome, with useful information out of reach. Most of all, they reflect an egocentric view of the world, where citizens apparently want welcome messages from elected officials, biographies of politicians, and press-release puffery.

If an elephant is a horse created by a government committee, these Web sites give the impression that those in charge don't even know what kind of animal they're aiming for.

Nothing showcases the problem as well as public transit. In Portland, Oregon, riders of the TriMet system can go online to "trip planner," where they get detailed directions such as "walk .19 mile east from bike gallery," which bus to board, how long the trip will take, and what the fare will be. Riders can get real-time arrivals by clicking "transit tracker," with updates on how close the bus or lightrail is.

Meanwhile, here at home, "trip planner" at MATA means sending an email with your personal information, place and time of departure, and place of arrival. Then, the Web site promises: "One of our customer service representatives will get back to you within 24 hours with a recommendation."

For the most part, our public sites focus on what they want from us -- money -- as opposed to what we'd like from them. They offer ways to pay taxes and traffic tickets, and charge a "convenience fee" for the privilege.

As a general rule, the public information we most want is rarely found online, and when it is, it's rarely in a format that's easily understood or even useful. On county government's home page (www.shelbycountytn.gov), for example, a visitor interested in a specific department must already know what division it's in. (Who knew D11-DHS -- our division of Homeland Security -- was part of public works?) But then again, this is from the city that expects its citizens to possess this arcane knowledge of governmental structure to find a telephone number in the phone book.

Across the country, dozens of governments are developing broadband networks for their communities, but Memphis isn't one of them.

New York's Central Park is becoming wireless. Philadelphia, Portland, and Milwaukee launched programs to become citywide "hot spots" in the next 18 months. Suffolk County, New York, has kicked off a wireless system over 900 square miles -- an area larger than Shelby County.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin introduced the "Atlanta Dashboard" that keeps city government managers focused on goals and indicators of success. Most of all, it opens a window for citizens to judge how city operations are performing.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino is equipping all city vehicles to double as "digital street assessment tools" to measure vibrations created by rough roads and potholes, then send the data to a computer that maps locations using GPS. Shanghai, China, is doing much the same thing, but its perpetually updated map is also used by private companies who want to know which routes are best on a given day. In an Intel survey of wireless cities, Memphis ranked 68th, behind Nashville, Knoxville, Little Rock, Omaha, and Tulsa; the University of Memphis didn't make the top 100 wireless college campuses; Memphis International Airport isn't listed in the top 25 wireless airports; and unsurprisingly, neither local government makes the annual winners' lists for digital cities or counties.

This is about much more than bragging rights. It's about a coherent e-government plan.

At its most basic, this plan applies technology to improve administrative functions and a greater sharing of information within government. More to the point, it can transform the relationship between the government and the people it serves.

It's about creating government that's open for business when we need it, 24/7/365. It's about citizen-centric government and flattening the bureaucracy, and it's about increasing government efficiency and productivity, promoting transparency and accountability, and inviting the public into discussions and decisions.

All it takes to make e-government happen is for the mayors to order it done. It's that simple.

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