Introducing iGov

Even people who support government dread having actual encounters with it. Things don’t have to be that way.

By Ethan Porter David Kendall

Tagged CivicsGovernance

In 1933, a thank-you note arrived at the Roosevelt White House. It was straightforward enough:

Dear Mr. President: This is just to tell you that everything is all right now. The man you sent found our house all right, and we went down to the bank with him and the mortgage can go on for a while longer. You remember I wrote you about losing the furniture too. Well, your man got it back for us. I never heard of a President like you.

Other letters were streaming into the White House at the time, many expressing similar notes of gratitude—and intimacy; relations between citizens and the Administration were on close, personal terms. As the White House fulfilled a request to intervene directly in securing a house and furniture for one specific family, so too did it receive pictures from proud children. “Look how big I am,” they proclaimed. Other letters addressed the president as one would a father or grandfather. The top White House mail clerk had to expand his staff from two to 23.

Think of it: a government human enough for people to feel as if they were friends with it, and helpful enough to be grateful toward. Some 80 years later, we live in a different world, one in which government has become, at best, a hulking shadow in the distance. As government has exploded in size and grown more distant from our everyday lives, we have become ever more dissatisfied with it. This past summer, Gallup reported that among 25 major industries, the federal government ranked dead last in public approval, below even oil companies and lawyers. Only 17 percent of respondents had anything positive to say about government. The main reason for this, of course, is the constant government-bashing we’ve been hearing from the right for decades. But it’s also because people can’t be expected to like something they know little about. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, even the majority of those who receive direct cash benefits from the government, in the forms of Social Security and unemployment, do not know to identify the government as the source of those benefits.

This is a problem for our politics—even a crisis. It’s our central unifying belief that government can be used to do good and to help solve shared problems. But if 83 percent of the people don’t see the government in a positive light, we’ve got trouble. We need to think about this, and we need to do something about it.

There is another aspect to the problem of how government is perceived. Consider: Most citizens’ interactions with government are negative. This is not all the government’s fault. Citizens often contact the government under duress—when a tax deadline looms, when a parent or spouse is sick or has died. But the government doesn’t usually make those difficult interactions any easier. The federal government as we know it is mostly in the business of saying “no”—or at best, explaining to citizens under what complicated X number of conditions, after waiting Y number of weeks, they can finally get to yes. All of us, even committed liberals, dread having to deal with the IRS or applying for a passport. We may think of these as minor inconveniences, but multiply them by many millions and they become a way of life—a way of life that tells people, “Government is not your friend.”

In response, we posit a set of rarely considered questions: What if government were conceived in a radically different fashion? What if government didn’t wait to hear from people in crisis, but reached out to them affirmatively—even sometimes with (gasp!) good news? What if government were in the business of saying yes? And what if the federal government devised methods to let people know—and the vast, vast majority of them have no idea—the ways in which they are already benefiting from government intervention and assistance in their daily lives, from their earliest years on earth to their very last?

It is with these questions in mind that we’ve conceived of “iGov,” a set of principles and practices, which we will outline below, that will make government more accessible, more comprehensible, and—harkening back to Roosevelt’s day—more human. Last year, in the pages of this journal [“Seeing Where the Money Went,” Issue #20] and in The Washington Post, we proposed a “taxpayer receipt,” a one-stop way for citizens to know exactly where their tax money goes. We were pleased to see the idea widely embraced. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate, and the White House released its own version of the receipt online.

That was a promising start. But “iGov” will take the concept several steps further. Over the long term, we need a system that presents an accurate, comprehensive picture of the tangled relationship among government, individual citizens, and their communities. Such a system would line up costs (taxes, fees, and the like) and benefits (Social Security, Medicare, subsidized school loans, etc.) side-by-side, giving all Americans a personalized peek into the bureaucracy they both finance and depend on over the course of their lives. The result, we hope, would be a better-informed citizenry—and a citizenry less hostile to government, since it would now be informed about what government really does.

iGov: What Government Is Doing for Me

iGov would offer citizens a simple and reliable way to track their relationship with the federal government over their lifetimes. Each citizen would have his or her own iGov account, through which the federal government would be able to present the accumulation of the benefits that a person has ever received from across the government. A single click would reveal what the government has meant in a person’s life, in the most concrete terms.

Specifically, iGov would offer all Americans the chance to see their income, taxes paid on that income, and their personal benefits received. In this system, benefits listed would include Social Security, student loans, farm subsidies, unemployment insurance, veterans’ benefits, earned-income tax credit, Medicaid/Medicare, and deductions such as those for home mortgage interest, health care, child care, and retirement savings. These benefits are alike in their directness, making them relatively easy to track and straightforward enough to represent. Whether or not other material advantages, such as the low tax rate afforded capital gains in comparison to income, would count for our purposes is a matter for political debate. But the largest benefits, those that form the core of social policy, must be included.

Costs, meanwhile, would be reflected via a longitudinal version of the taxpayer receipt we proposed in our earlier articles. You would see not only where your tax dollars went one year, but where they had gone in previous years, too. As we discussed in our articles proposing the receipt, we believe that it’s possible to display costs by aggregating different functions of federal spending into useful categories, such as “defense,” “transportation” and “health.” The direct benefits you’ve received throughout your life would be enumerated. Moreover, benefits to your community—town, county, state—would be specifically identified. Costs and benefits wouldn’t line up exactly, nor would they be expected to. The point is only to offer a portrait of your lifetime relationship with government.

All the information iGov would display is currently collected, but strewn across a maze of federal agencies. When the FBI performs a background check, it accesses some of it. Our system would comprehensively present, to every American who wishes to see it, what the government already knows about him or her. Participation would be entirely voluntary. Citizens would be asked if they wished to sign up for an iGov account whenever they have business with the federal government—for example, when renewing a passport or filing taxes online. Your Social Security number would help iGov identify your information in the computers of various government agencies.

Today, information about costs and benefits for many key government programs is virtually missing from the Internet. For example, neither Medicare nor Medicaid informs beneficiaries about how much their coverage is worth each year. In contrast, the Affordable Care Act requires employers to show employees the value of their benefits starting in 2012, making employees more aware of the cost of their private coverage. It seems obvious that beneficiaries of public health-care programs like Medicare and Medicaid should be just as well informed.

The problem of absent or deficient transaction information is not limited to the public health realm. In the current recession, one out of four Americans has been receiving food stamps or some other kind of nutrition assistance. Yet beneficiaries will never see an accounting of how much they received. That helps explain why 25 percent of people who receive food stamps claim that they have never used a government program, according to political scientist Suzanne Mettler with the Cornell Survey Research Institute. Recipients of most other government social programs are even less likely to acknowledge they benefited from a government program. Contrast this with Amazon.com, where with a few quick clicks you can call up a list of every transaction you’ve ever had with the company.

Although progressives have more reason to be concerned about the lack of knowledge over the benefits of government, it is a problem for conservatives, too. For example, reforming entitlements is made all the more difficult by the beneficiaries’ perception that they are only getting what they put in. A personalized accounting of lifetime benefits and taxes paid would show the significant gap that is contributing to the long-term structural deficit. More generally, an increase in public information is not bound to lead to greater support for progressive policies. Indeed, as research has shown, even a perfectly well-informed public would still be deeply skeptical about the estate tax.

For programs harder to quantify on a per-citizen basis, such as roads and education, agencies could show costs and benefits via Google maps. The model here would be the way in which the Obama Administration highlighted the benefits of the Recovery Act using a map that breaks down costs at the level of state or ZIP code. With iGov, the benefits disbursed from each agency could be displayed and separated out. Want to know how much highway money your neighborhood took in? What about the amount of block grant money your city received? What about all the businesses in your town that are government contractors or vendors—how much do they get? Or public amenities like convention halls and senior centers and nature areas—how reliant are they on Washington? You could look at any one of these, or all at once. Of course, these benefits would have to be displayed at the appropriate level of municipality, dependent on the specifics of the spending. In this way, you could learn the degree to which the federal government spends money—not only on you but on the community of which you’re a part. After all, this spending is already occurring. The technology that could display it is already available. We ought to make use of it.

The Functions of iGov

We believe that iGov would serve at least two functions. It would make clear the extent to which government plays a foundational role in all our lives. Call this the illustrative function. At the same time, iGov would emphasize that, despite our myriad political divisions, we still have government itself in common. Call this the commonality function. The two functions would work together to identify the stake each of us have in government and its operations.

To say that iGov would serve an illustrative function is to say that it would illustrate, as clearly and accurately as possible, the role that government plays in the lives of citizens and their communities. In so doing, it would act as a bulwark against the steady flow of misinformation about government. Misinformation tends to manifest itself in two ways. The first relates to misinformation about the sheer fact of government itself; people do not know what it is doing when it is doing it. The second relates to the kinds of activities that government actually does undertake; people ascribe to it behaviors and attributes that it plainly does not engage in or possess. For an example of the second type, think only of the recent uproar over “death panels,” which showed exactly how pernicious policy myths can become.

The first type, meanwhile, has been explored best in Suzanne Mettler’s research. Mettler has documented at great length the degree to which even beneficiaries of government services are not aware that it is the government providing them. In 2008, Mettler and her colleagues conducted a poll in which 57 percent of respondents claimed not to have received any government benefits such as Medicare or Social Security. In fact, 94 percent of them had done so—they simply didn’t credit the government as the source of the benefits. For most of the people whom Mettler surveyed, government does not even rise to the level of necessary evil. It might as well not exist.

And it would seem the problem may very well be greater than Mettler let on. Her study focused on those citizens who were already receiving benefits but did not know government was the source. Yet what about those who are eligible for certain benefits and services but do not know it? For example, 4.3 million children are eligible for but not enrolled in federal health care programs. The government website Benefits.gov has begun an effort to try to match eligible recipients to services. But so far, not enough people know about Benefits.gov to make the site widely effective. Moreover, as it doesn’t list benefits already received, display community benefits, or attempt to show costs, it’s a far more static and restrained model than we’re proposing.

It’s undeniably the case that government has failed to use the tools of the twenty-first century, choosing either to depend on the increasingly outmoded postal service, or the media, or even more naïvely, on the wish that, on their own, citizens will easily draw sophisticated conclusions about the work they are paying government to do for them. In reality, instances of formal communication have occurred haphazardly, when they occur at all. Any great optimism about citizens’ abilities to have high levels of accurate knowledge about their government flies in the face of an enormous volume of social-science research. People are busy. People have demands on their time that make knowing the contours of government a difficult luxury to afford. Government surely does little to make it easy. Yet citizens deserve to be equipped with the tools to cut through the fog of rumors and half-truths, and have some facts at their disposal.

Mettler and her colleagues are interested in identifying the contours of the “submerged state”—the array of government goods and benefits that, for whatever reason, have remained hidden. This is a worthy goal, one that iGov is intended to help meet. Instead of a small number of universal experiences such as getting a Social Security number at birth or receiving Social Security benefits in retirement, iGov would give all citizens constant updates about their relationship with their government. It would represent a commitment by government to keep up with innovation in the name of keeping its citizens informed. Unlike the taxpayer receipt, which portrayed a one-dimensional relationship between citizens and government with an emphasis on the cost, iGov would capture the full scope of costs and benefits—not only for individuals, but for communities as well.

Although showing citizens the costs and benefits of government is critical, it is not all that iGov should do. As America is a large country, teeming with diverse terrains and populations imported from all over the world, rifts have been ubiquitous since the Revolution. We now seem to live in more divided times than ever; splintered deeply along partisan and ideological lines, and clustering ourselves more than ever into like-minded neighborhoods and states, we have more or less abandoned the idea of the common project, undertaken for the common good. At best, we agree to disagree; more realistically, we agree that we’ll never agree at all. Control of Congress is changing at a whiplash pace, and if President Obama is re-elected, it will mean that since 1976—the first election to follow Watergate—the two parties will have occupied the White House for equal amounts of time.

iGov will not resolve passionate political arguments. What it can do, however, is emphasize the common ground on which they occur. Basically, this common ground is the national government itself, which provides the interstate highways, military, and welfare services that make such arguments possible. Common-interest arguments are a dime a dozen and usually end up grounded in some form of national mythmaking. What iGov emphasizes is much more humble. As a common project uniting a disparate people, the government itself is a tie that binds. To be an American may mean one thing to someone and something entirely different to someone else, but surely for all it means having responsibility for stewardship of the government.

What does this stewardship mean? At some points, it means making good use of benefits such as unemployment insurance and Pell grants. On other occasions, it means paying taxes so those programs can exist. But it also means contributing to governmental systems and functions that cannot realistically be conceived of on a per-capita basis. We are thinking here of services such as roads, national defense, and education, which could not exist without the implicit participation of the entire body politic. To attempt to exempt oneself would be to try to live a hermit’s life.

Via technology already widely available, iGov would outline the way in which our overlapping communities sustain the government services that we often take for granted but without which we could not lead our everyday lives. Of course, not every benefit of government can be quantified. Even benefits displayed at the community level would not comprehensively define that community. But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Similar worries were expressed during the creation of the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). Proponents insisted that despite the limitations of approaching HDI from a quantitative perspective, numbers have a way of capturing the public imagination. We agree. Data, while far from perfect, are useful for their universal descriptive power.

We now see how the two functions are related. The illustrative function shows what government does and does not do, while the commonality function clarifies that, if nothing else, government is what we have in common. The former helps arguments about the latter conform to factual reality.

Beyond iGov

Designing and implementing iGov would surely take years. We think of the longitudinal, dynamic display of costs and benefits as iGov 1.0. Ultimately, however, we would hope that such a project goes beyond that, to fundamentally transform the relationship between government and information technology. All too often, people associate government service with inconvenience and inefficiency. iGov can be the first step in an overhaul of how government does business, one that could mitigate, if not eliminate, that long-standing impression.

An iGov account, universally available at birth via your Social Security number, could be a single repository of all government-citizen interactions. Getting a passport, applying for Social Security, purchasing a National Park pass, and much more could all be done through this account. If that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t; states like Michigan and Montana already use a single login name and password for services across agencies. The federal government should replicate and improve upon their efforts.

We recently examined 40 federal websites with downloadable forms for services and benefits, and identified only six that let users submit completed forms online. Of those six, only two offer a way to track the transactions online. One of those two websites is for student loans. Under the auspices of the Department of Education, myFSA (Financial Student Aid) provides students with an online account for financial aid applications, financial aid calculators, and links to college applications. In a separate account through StudentLoans.gov, students can manage their loan documents and see their financial aid history. The site provides a solid set of informational tools for college-bound students. But it is the exception that proves the rule.

Citizens could also use the account to receive customized information, as is frequently done on many websites, often automatically. As it stands today, the federal government is largely passive about disseminating information. Although all federal agencies have websites on which they place some vital information, much less effort goes into actually getting that information to people who could use it. When a federal agency does want to actively push out information, it typically follows the standard routine of sending a press release to the media. At one time, that was an effective method. But given the lower costs and greater effectiveness of online services and social media, it makes sense to move much more of the provision of information from a wholesale to a retail operation.

Ideally, the flow of information between citizen and government would start at birth. Nothing like that happens today. Currently, among other pieces of paperwork, newborns receive a birth certificate and a Social Security card. That’s basically it—for 60 years. Thanks to recent budget cuts, the federal government does not follow up with every citizen individually until their sixtieth birthday, which is the new age for receiving a Social Security statement (before the budget cuts, statements had been sent to workers starting at age 25). In an age when customized sources of information are at our fingertips, the federal government could fill that vast gap with ideas and information about the services already provided by government agencies.

For example, upon submitting the paperwork for a Social Security number, new parents could be prompted to sign up for information about giving their child a healthy start in life with visits to a pediatrician for well-baby checkups. That would help solve the problem that half of all infants receive only half of the recommended number of checkups and one of every three infants receive only one-third of the checkups. iGov could provide reminders directly into parents’ accounts using existing, but underutilized tools such as healthfinder.gov, a customized health information website based on scientific research compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services. Similarly, for a parent worried about a child getting enough of the right food, iGov could automatically file an application with the appropriate food security programs, which would take Benefits.gov to the next level of service.

In a way, iGov would be the federal, Information Age-analogue to New York City’s wildly successful 311 program. Less than ten years old, the program allows anybody to call in, speak to an operator, and learn vital information about city services, from pothole repair to school closings to snow removal. The service has handled more than 100 million calls in about 180 different languages and spawned imitators across the country. Of course, the scope of the federal government’s responsibilities is much broader than New York City’s. And we shudder to think that it took government more than a century to figure out how best to use the telephone.

The 311 service entered the lexicon gradually, until it became virtually synonymous with city government accessibility. The word “iGov” should achieve the same at the federal level, and do for government’s relationship to the Internet what 311 did for its relationship to telephones. We envision a personalized experience with each government agency’s website for users who are logged into their iGov account. Users could also choose to link their iGov account with social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter, so that they could see what their friends like on the agency’s website and find specialized news feeds. The iGov platform would expand the opportunities for targeted information sources, such as FoodSafety.gov, which is a multi-agency effort to provide consumers with information about recalls and alerts about food safety. It could also help combat inaccurate information. For example, when rumors spread last fall that the EPA was on the verge of regulating farm-dust emissions, Administrator Lisa Jackson released a statement making clear they were not based in reality. And yet the rumor continued to crop up, again and again. Agencies cannot combat rumors and falsehoods without connections to communities, which are increasingly available through social media.

iGov would help ensure that all federal agencies are fully integrated into the stream of viral information that now so strongly shapes what people think. It would build on the White House new media team’s push to use social media and other communication initiatives like the federal Plain Language Action and Information Network, which aims to make “bureaucratese” a thing of the past. It could add new tools such as online chats with service representatives from different agencies when and where demand warranted it. For those who would prefer the traditional experience of viewing a federal agency’s website anonymously, that would continue for anyone not logged into to their iGov account.

While the federal government would not start from scratch in pursuit of an iGov strategy, it would have a long way to go. Just getting up to speed with the strides taken by the private sector would be a tall order. Since the initial widespread deployment of information technology under the Reinventing Government initiative in the Clinton-Gore Administration, much has changed. Companies like Amazon, Fidelity, and Facebook have shown how to electronically manage a rich set of individual and community relationships. Relying on customized information, these companies provide easy access to what customers want and need. They connect individuals to communities with similar interests who have made similar transactions before. iGov would adopt similar techniques to deepen the relationship between citizens and government.

Fighting the Anti-Government Mindset

Americans will always be skeptical of their government. As well they should; skepticism of government is healthy, and part of our heritage. But we’ve gone beyond skepticism. An anti-government mindset has all but conquered American politics. Is it possible that the gradual implementation of iGov—the use of modern-day technology to showcase everyone’s unique, complicated relationship with the federal government—would do its part to adjust that attitude? While not naïve utopians, we think that the answer is yes. If nothing else, when the government is as despised as ours, it has no choice but to improve. As the saying goes, it has nowhere to go but up.

Of course, design and implementation would happen slowly, as an iterative process that the President could initiate via executive order or Congress could launch through legislation. Over time, different agencies would merge their efforts into iGov. Right now, many agencies are moving toward technological modernity, but there has been no coordinated effort on this central point: Citizens should know the details of their relationship with their government. They should not be in the dark about the costs they put in or the benefits they receive. iGov, understood as a unifying strategy and a lodestar for action, is meant to tell a dynamic, long-term story. As a goal, it is both alluringly straightforward and one that will require immense yet incremental efforts across Washington.

As iGov takes hold at the federal level, it will be critical for state governments to join in as well. After all, the states distribute many federal benefits such as food stamps and health care for the poor and disabled. It seems plausible, if not likely, that the states would offer their own versions. In, say, one or two decades’ time, come April 15, you’d know not only where your tax money was going—you’d know in what form it was coming back. If you had a question about Social Security, you could speak with a representative online. While paying off your student loan, you could examine the way in which federal money benefited your community. And as the states take up iGov, perhaps it would be possible to shorten the dreaded DMV wait time by instituting an online appointment process, similar to that found in Apple stores (indeed, some state DMVs have started doing this). Above all, no matter where you fell on the ideological spectrum, you’d have a better idea of that shared project, the national government.

We don’t live in the Age of Roosevelt anymore, when the White House could send its agents to help local families get by. We do, however, live in a period when modern technology has made information ubiquitous and ever more accessible. Making use of these innovations, today’s federal government could adopt a human face for the digital age.

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Ethan Porter Ethan Porter is an assistant professor at George Washington University. He is the author of The Consumer Citizen (Oxford), from which this essay is adapted.

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David Kendall is senior fellow for health and fiscal policy at Third Way.

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