Reinvigorating Democracy and Government
Preceding sections of this paper have focused on the role that our nation's rapid deployment of universal, robust broadband can play in addressing several of the most complex and challenging problems that America faces. Building out broadband to every American household, however, is not enough. The new Administration must include in its National Broadband Strategy initiatives to eliminate the digital divide through a program of "digital inclusion" - which encompasses access to broadband for all Americans and the skills and tools required to effectively use it. The NBS should foster increased transparency and empower greater participation by citizens, while at the same time implementing more efficient "e-government" practices to generate cost savings in the billions of dollars. Promoting digital inclusion and shrinking the digital divide will stimulate broadband supply and demand, as well as transform and reenergize the federal government, connect policymakers to citizens, generate substantial cost savings, and reinvigorate our democracy.
Sadly, America today is too often a society of digital exclusion where low-income, minority, rural, elderly, and disabled Americans have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide. Although 55 percent of adults in this country now have access to broadband at home,136 figures show significant disparities for several key demographic groups. For example:
- Only 35 percent of homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have broadband, while 76 percent of households earning more than $50,000 per year are connected.
- Nearly 20 million Americans live in areas that are not served by a single broadband provider, while tens of millions more live in places where there is only a single provider for high-speed Internet access.
- Only 40 percent of racial and ethnic minority households subscribe to broadband, while 55 percent of non-Hispanic white households are connected.137
Even more worrisome, the rate of broadband penetration for low-income families has actually dropped since 2007 as many have disconnected their broadband service during these hard economic times. For African-Americans, growth in broadband penetration has slowed dramatically compared to that for all citizens.138
In terms of overall access to the Internet, the data tell a similar story of disparity and digital exclusion. While 73 percent of Americans nationwide have access to and make regular use of the Internet, several key demographic groups significantly lag the average:
- Only 59 percent of African Americans are online, compared with 79 percent of whites.
- Only 38 percent of Americans with disabilities are connected.
- Only 44 percent of people who have not graduated from high school are connected, compared to 91 percent of college graduates.
- Only 35 percent of people who are over age 65 are online, compared to 90 percent of those aged between 18 and 29.
- Only 56 percent of all Hispanics, and only 32 percent of those Latinos who speak only Spanish, use the Internet.139
Many years into the oft-marveled "Information Age," the intensity of the digital divide is unmistakable even among our youth. Children with disabilities and those coming from minority and low-income backgrounds still often lack home access to a computer or the Internet. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, the Children's Partnership reports:
- Children in low-income families are half as likely to have a computer as children in households with annual incomes over $75,000, are a third as likely to have Internet access, and a sixth as likely to have access to broadband.
- Home Internet access among children ages 7 to 17 varies widely by ethnicity. Only 41 percent of Native American youth, 43 percent of African-American youth, and 44 percent of Latino youth have access; compared to 75 percent of Asian-American youth and 80 percent of white youth.
- Among people age 15 or older, only 24.3 percent of those with disabilities use the Internet at home, compared to 50.5 percent of those without disabilities.
- Of school children, ages of 7 to 17, only 29 percent of those in households with annual incomes of less than $15,000 use a home computer to complete school assignments, compared to 77 percent of those in households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more.140
Declares the Children's Partnership, "As the gap between rich and poor in the United States continues to grow, the ability to benefit from the opportunities delivered through computers and the Internet can help a generation of young people move out of poverty. Digital opportunity for kids is the equity issue of the 21st century."141 For children and adults with disabilities, computers and broadband Internet access offer enhanced opportunities to more fully participate in and engage with society. Yet persons with disabilities are actually less likely to own a computer or have access to the Internet. A survey of disabled persons 15 years of age or older showed:
- Only 44 percent with disabilities had a computer at home, compared to 72 percent of those without disabilities;
- Only 38 percent of those with disabilities had access to the Internet at home, compared to 64 percent of those without disabilities; and
- Only 24.3 percent of those with disabilities use the Internet at home, compared to 50.5 percent of those without disabilities.142
With more and more of our society's news, information, cultural, and civic life now taking place online, digital inclusion is increasingly necessary for citizens to fully participate in our democracy. As communities cut back on cable television's public, educational, and government (PEG) local access channels, as Phoenix recently did,143 or push PEG channels into a more expensive and exclusive cable package, as happened to a million households in the Tampa Bay area,144 the Internet is taking on an increasing role and responsibility in engaging citizens in the affairs of their communities. Many localities, for instance, now stream or archive their governmental meetings on the Internet.145
The need for digital inclusion of all our nation's citizens to provide them the opportunity to fully engage in civic affairs was dramatically displayed on July 23, 2007 in Charleston, South Carolina. At The Citadel, the city's military college, the candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination engaged in a first-of-its-kind presidential debate, in which they were questioned not by professional journalists but by members of the public who submitted over 3,000 questions via the video-sharing website YouTube.146
The ability of citizens to use YouTube, and to meaningfully engage in community affairs over the Internet, is entirely dependent on their ability to access the Internet via broadband. But at Cooper River Courts, a public housing project close by The Citadel, few of the residents have access to broadband, or even a computer. "I am low income and computers are not low income," says Marcella Morris, an unemployed Cooper River resident. "I know how to use a computer. I just can't afford one right now."
Like most youngsters these days, Cooper River Courts resident Tiara Reid, 14, is web-savvy. She uses her school's Internet access to communicate with her friends and do her homework. But when school is out, without Internet access at home, the distant library is the only place where she can go to get online. Says LaToya Ferguson, one of the few Cooper River Courts residents with Internet access at home, "You're falling behind if you're not online; now that's the truth."
Marcella Morris echoes that feeling of digital exclusion. "I could take my kids to other places on the Internet. Sometimes I feel shortchanged."
That the broadband-required YouTube debate took place so close to the broadband-denied Cooper River Courts starkly illustrates the very real digital divide that exists not only in Charleston, but across our nation. And, disturbingly, that divide is not closing for many Americans; rather, it's expanding.
"At one level, the YouTube debate shows that the Web has really become a centerpiece of American political culture," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "At another level, it also shows that the debate is not for everybody. It's certainly not available to all Americans."
"I would argue that the digital divide is worse than it was 10 years ago," says Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the Personal Democracy Forum website and co-founder of techPresident, a nonpartisan blog that tracks the online campaign. "Back then everyone - schools, businesses - was trying to get online. These days every single Fortune 500 company has its employees, its customers and its suppliers connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the meantime, while our students have online access at school, many of them don't have it at home." 147
As more and more of our civic life takes place on the Internet, failure to close the digital divide will increasingly relegate those unable to participate online to a second-class "separate but equal" citizenship, threatening our democratic values and institutions. In 21st-century America, that is unacceptable.
In the "Education" section, we noted that digital excellence must include information literacy - mastery of the skillset necessary to "mine" the Internet's almost limitless resources to secure useful information and solve problems. The new Administration should adopt policies to ensure that all Americans, not only children, should have the ability to:
- Know when you need information to help resolve a problem;
- Know from whom, when, where, and how to seek that needed information;
- Know how to differentiate between authentic and unauthentic information;
- Know how to organize information and interpret it correctly once retrieved; and
- Know how to use the information to solve the problem or make the decision.
Efficient, Transparent Government Connected to Its Citizens
By deploying universal, robust broadband and broadband applications, the new Administration has a tremendous opportunity to reenergize government, making it more efficient, transparent, accountable, and open to the active participation of the citizens it serves, while generating cost savings in the billions of dollars.
Governments at all levels are using broadband and information technology to deliver better "e-government" services to citizens at lower cost. Such cost savings and benefits are "enormous," say Baller and Lide, although they concede that "given the many ways that e-government can be defined and implemented, it is difficult to make accurate estimates of its financial benefits." They note that:
- The federal Office of Management and Budget reported to Congress that certain federal e-government initiatives resulted in benefits totaling $508 million in fiscal year 2008.
- The United Nations has estimated that e-government initiatives can result in cost savings of 10-50 percent.
- The U.S. Department of Commerce, focusing only on savings in procurements, has estimated annual savings of $49 billion by the federal government and $58 billion by state and local governments.148
In addition to more efficient e-government, infusing Web 2.0 technologies throughout government will enable citizens to monitor inefficiency, waste, fraud, and abuse in government spending and practices. It will also empower the public to more actively participate in governmental processes and decision making. The bipartisan Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, sponsored by Senator Barack Obama and co-sponsored by Senator John McCain, was an excellent first step in this effort, creating USASpending.gov (aka "Google for Government"), which launched in December 2007. On USASpending.gov, the public can access information about most federal grants, contracts, loans, and other financial information in a user-friendly format.
However, broadband applications enable so much more to be done. Much of the federal government's data is buried in user-unfriendly and out-of-date websites and databases. For example, the Federal Communications Commission - ironically, the federal agency tasked to promote advanced telecommunications technologies - uses a website to communicate with the public that has remained nearly unchanged in design and structure since 2001. Searches for filings and materials are handicapped by an FCC-proprietary search engine that requires users to know specifics of a particular proceeding beforehand, such as its docket number or the source of the document. The content of the documents themselves is not searchable, even though those documents are generally part of the public record. Although Google, the private sector's leading search engine, does not have access to the internal databases of the Commission, its ability to search the FCC's website for relevant material does a "significantly better job of identifying relevant information" than the Commission's own search function while also being more user-friendly.150
Instead of having federal departments and agencies organize their data on creaky, outdated government websites, crippled by outmoded tools and technology, Robinson, et. al, argue,
if the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. . . . It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.151
By "creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that 'exposes' the underlying data," the government will empower the private sector, whether commercial or nonprofit, to present, organize, and manipulate that government data for citizens in a multitude of ways. While wikis, blogs, forums, comment pages, mashups, and other Web 2.0 innovations are difficult or impossible for the government to create or moderate on its own websites due to the plethora of laws and regulations agencies operate under, private websites and services that use government data are not so encumbered. Not-for-profit and commercial websites featuring easily accessible databases of federal contracts, audit disputes, competitive bidding, criminal or civil violations, earmarks, lobbyist meetings, and other heretofore difficult-to-access or "inside" government data can shine an important light on decision making and help level the playing field for ordinary citizens. Opening up access to the government's data so that citizens empowered by Web 2.0 tools (including those not yet developed) can analyze, scrutinize, and use it will make government more transparent, accountable, and responsive.152
The new Administration must also promote more direct citizen participation in government decision making through the use of broadband applications. Public agency meetings should be streamed online, provide an opportunity for direct citizen input, and then be archived for future public access. "Town-hall" meetings with public officials should be held frequently, since they will no longer need to take place in a physical town hall, but can be held virtually online where citizens utilizing broadband can easily participate. Pending legislation and regulations should be easily searchable and accessible online with the public empowered to comment.
The new Administration should promote digital inclusion of all citizens, and an efficient, open, and user-friendly egovernment interface that enables them to participate fully and knowledgeably in government decision making.
- Provide tax incentives for closing the Digital Divide:
- Tax incentives for Americans who donate their old computers to economically disadvantaged families;
- Tax credits or subsidies for free or low-cost broadband Internet access for low-income households; and
- Tax incentives to businesses for digital training for their employees;
- Address digital literacy:
- Require digital literacy training in all federal education and worker retraining programs; and
- Support state and local digital literacy programs, and programs that aid access to the Internet for persons with disabilities.
- Mandate that all federal housing be wired for broadband. Simple access to Internet and broadband services significantly expands the public's options in terms of employment, education, communication, and access to information.
- Establish a National Youth Tech Corps to identify talented young people in technology and train them for community service projects in technology instruction and digital inclusion.
- Support the online "Public Internet Channel," now in beta at www.pic.tv, to serve as a "one-stop shop" for citizens seeking information and assistance in the areas of jobs and training, health, education, civic participation, and emergency preparedness.
- Promote e-government programs that reduce costs and empower citizens to interact with their government online.
- Bring more government information online in open formats that enable the private sector to present it to citizens in innovative and effective ways, empowering greater citizen involvement in policymaking. Using web 2.0 tools to create more transparency and make government data equally accessible to all, citizens will be able to track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and the lobbyist contacts of government officials using websites, wikis, blogs, social networking, and other tools.