Citizens to Feds: Mind Your Own Business

a t a recent Washington conference on customer relationship management for the public sector, privacy fears lit up the discussion.

As a presenter extolled the virtues of CRM software, which for years has allowed companies like airlines and banks to identify their most lucrative customers and cater to them with special services, a government employee in the front row raised his hand to respond to the notion that agencies should capitalize on the mountains of data they have about citizens, share it with each other and use it to provide top-notch customer service.

"We all work for the government," the employee said. "Do we really trust the government with our private information?" Cries of "No!" erupted across the room.

CRM has privacy advocates' hair afire. House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, recently issued a joint statement with the American Civil Liberties Union condemning government's encroachment on people's private lives, decrying "a troubling expansion in the way technology is being used in the surveillance of ordinary Americans." The Coalition for Constitutional Liberties, composed largely of privacy advocacy groups and conservative political organizations, says "too often government record-keeping requirements can contribute, directly or indirectly, to private sector abuses of Americans' privacy."

The advantage for agencies in using the data they collect on citizens is better customer service, says Marsha Rydstrom, acting chief information officer at the Social Security Administration, which is planning a CRM pilot project. Agencies looking for gold stars from Congress and the public feel that improving service is the way to go, and the more they know about their customers, the better they can inform citizens about what services are available. But how receptive will citizens be to receiving, say, an e-mail about survivors benefits with the subject heading, "Sorry to hear about the loss of your father/mother"?

Phil Talksy, senior product marketing manager for Remedy, a CRM vendor, says agencies could share data in "discrete components" to eliminate redundancies in work without having to give away everything. After all, why should Social Security and the IRS collect and maintain the same information about every citizen?

But privacy zealots cry foul at such a notion. Wayne Crews, director of technology studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, says the public is required to give the government most of the information it wants-there's no opt-out feature. "Do you want to automate . . . in the name of e-government and efficiency if it's something people would prefer not be done?" he asks. Agencies trying out CRM technology hear many of the same complaints from their own employees. Tim Vigotsky, director of the Interior Department's National Business Center, says that when his agency began a pilot project to put all personnel records and payroll information online, employees grew wary. "There's a percentage of the employees that are very, very concerned . . . and have fairly loudly voiced those concerns," he says.

Those employees aren't alone. A recent survey by the polling firm Hart-Teeter for the Council for Excellence in Government found a majority of Americans believe e-government's long-term impact will be positive. But more than half of all Americans harbor fears that a government employee might misuse their personal information.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec