The work products from most agencies are created, marked up and published in a digital form. It took years but the government is now mostly digital. Many agencies put up a good fight, however digital won. Certainly, some agencies still publish their work as hardcopy but most do not. Looking for information now requires the use of a computer, not so much a trek to the file room. File cabinets are not yet a thing of the past but I have not seen a new one in a while.
I recently saw a picture of a congressman holding up a hardcopy form of a proposed bill they had just voted on. The bill literally had text crossed out with a sharpie and replacement text handwritten in the margins with arrows. The content of the bill aside, what struck me is how old-fashioned and unofficial marking up hardcopy pages looked.
Government agencies work electronically just like the private sector does. Sure, some participants use hardcopy for taking notes but the document actually being marked up is almost always electronic with track changes turned on. Typically some team member(s) creates the original draft. A small group then collaborates to iterate the draft into a more final-like version. Various stakeholders then have the opportunity to digest and comment on the material. Revisions are made up to the moment of “policy” approval.
During the whole process, the work product is kept digital. It gives everyone access to the current version while it is being worked on and easier to share with the rest of world when it is time to publish the final version. Even when our work gets “public noticed," we may accept hardcopy comments. But most often, we expect the comments to come in digitally.
Contrary to how secretive the workings of government are often portrayed, the reality is that the process is usually transparent and online. While government agencies are very protective of private information, public information is generally readily available for all to see and interact with.
Day after day, week after week, for many years, government agencies create and post all sorts of information online. As the amount of information online increased, the amount of information worked on and stored in “hardcopy” decreased. Think of all of the agencies at all of the levels of government that produce and publish digital information. Most agencies have thousands and thousands of online “pages” and there are thousands of agencies. The magnitude of government information online is huge and growing.
Over 87 percent of the adult United States population has internet access. Worldwide it is estimated that over 3.8 billion people have internet access. Quite literally posting digital content gives that information the biggest potential audience it can have. No other method of sharing information even comes close. Government agencies literally share most of our information in the manner that most people have access to; the internet.
Sure, there is a huge potential audience for the information but what is the reality of how many view the information? The reality is government sites get an enormous number of views. A quick look at the analytics.usa.gov site shows that the Federal government websites get millions of page views every day. Federal sites had over 2.5 billion visits over the past 90 days. Now add to those all of the views of each of the state agency sites from all of the states. Then, add all of the views for all of the municipal sites within each state. Next, add all of the views for all of the other types of government sites. Lastly, add them all up and – holy cow – that is a lot of views.
Besides the information posted by government agencies, think about all of the related information posted by public interest organizations, consultants, interested parties (pro and opposed), businesses, academics, students, former and present clients, news organizations, bloggers and the list goes on.
The number of file cabinets in government may be decreasing but the amount of information posted on or about our programs is a lot and continues to grow. The vast majority of that information is available to anyone online from anywhere in the world at any time. Sure, many people don’t know that our information is available but it certainly is not a secret.
The reality is government agencies, as a whole, are using technology to create content and make that content as accessible as possible to the most people as possible. We are not perfect, but the days of marking up hardcopy with a sharpie are mostly in our past. Moreover, the information is actually being accessed and used by millions of our fellow citizens.
FYI – 13 percent of adults in the USA do not have internet access. Surveys show the top two reasons why they do not have access are: no interest and too complicated.
One final thing:
Now that so much government information is online, what happens next?
There exists a virtual community surrounding most of our areas of interest. When people search by topic, your site is likely just one of many they find. Your information may be “official” but is it the easiest to understand or use. When is the last time you searched for the same topics on which your agency posts? We are part of a virtual community.
My guess is learning to better interact with our online communities is what is likely to be a big part of what is next.
Paul Leegard is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.