The only way to escape the fiscal morass that seems to have trapped all levels of government is to bring to the delivery of public services the sort of productivity revolution that has so dramatically changed the private sector over the past generation.

Innovative designers, engineers and entrepreneurs have enabled our manufacturers to make more and more stuff at lower and lower prices with fewer and fewer people. We need to bring the same change to government.

And much progress has been made. Our Department of Revenue Services has saved Maine taxpayers thousands of hours and millions of dollars by gradually weaning us away from paper to electronic filing of our income tax obligations.

Much, much more can be done along this line of potential efficiency gains — motor vehicle registration and sales tax payments, property valuation and tax payments, recreation programming and registration. The list goes on.

Think of all the file drawers filled with cards and forms and documents — and of all the people printing them, explaining how to fill them out, copying them, filing them, retrieving them, counting them and, occasionally, even trying to read them and draw useful information from them.

Much of government involves gathering, filing and retrieving information. And digital machines can certainly allow us to do those things far more efficiently and usefully than we do them now.


This side of the so-called e-government revolution might be called the output side, the improved delivery of public services.

One avenue involves making information more readily and easily accessible to the government employees who use it to do their jobs — think of the apparently not-so-simple task of figuring out who is eligible for publicly financed health care benefits.

Another avenue is to make that information more readily and easily accessible to the citizens who want to use it — think of the auto dealers who would rather not have to slide six sheets of paper across the showroom table for customer signatures for every vehicle they sell.

But there is another side to the potential digital revolution of government, one that gets less attention but that is, I am convinced, far more important. This side might be called the input side.

It asks not what my government (or city or neighborhood) can do for me, but what I can do for my government (city, state or national). This is the side of the e-government revolution that potentially enhances democracy and increases citizen participation.

Two election cycles ago, Howard Dean introduced us to the financial aspect of this revolution by showing how Internet-savvy political appeals could mobilize institutionally unconnected individuals into an effective donation and voting bloc.


Since then, Internet appeals and social media have become basic tools of political campaigns. Another Vermont innovation — Front Porch Forum ( — has brought the same technological capability to what used to be the town meeting, the pancake breakfast and the church bean supper. It is a virtual meeting place for neighbors to share ideas on topics as mundane as a lost cat and as controversial as ATV trails and town charters. To judge by its glowing testimonials and rapid spread to towns across the Green Mountain state, it has been a great success.

Much is simply an expression of neighborliness — the loan of a sump pump, a reference to a native French speaker, thanks for a bigger-than-average turnout for church bingo.

But other testimonials speak to the forum’s value in building community — “I look forward to reading it every night. I’m not a Facebook fan but I LOVE Front Porch Forum.” And still other comments illustrate its value as a well-utilized source for varying but always respectful, never ranting, opinions on hot-button public issues.

In this last respect, the FPF represents e-government as a reflection not of a more efficient bureaucracy but of a more involved citizenry. And that is its greatest contribution and the one we ought to seek to promote here in Maine.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:


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