The NTIA Needs to Rethink Its Role in the New Telecommunications Environment Many people, both in and outside government, think the NTIA has become too political to be an effective advisor. Should the NTIA have become more realistic in what it thought it could accomplish politically? And, as a result, was it unable to implement many of its initiatives?

Does the National Telecommuni-cations Information Agency's (NTIA) fight for survival imperil the U.S. government's leadership of the information superhighway? The NTIA is supposed to be both the advisor to the president and the developer and articulator of the U.S. government's domestic and international telecommunications and information policy but is it up to these tasks? Many people, both inside and outside government, think the NTIA has become too political to be an effective advisor. Should the NTIA have been more realistic in what it thought it could accomplish politically? Did it try to do too much? And, as a result, was the NTIA unable to implement many of its initiatives?

Congress's move to dismantle the Commerce Department, where the NTIA is based, has put a halt to the agency's public efforts to lead the nation and spur the industry to develop a national information infrastructure (NII). Many federal agencies have already set up their own information policy units to accomplish similar, if not the same, public policy and standards issues concerning the NII or the global information infrastructure (GII) because they felt that the NTIA did not play an effective enough role either in spurring competition or in opening markets. The NTIA would likely have been on more solid ground if its work products had a more narrowly defined and targeted audience.

Now that Congress and the general public are rethinking the mission of the NTIA, maybe the question is not whether the NTIA survives, but what the role of government should be in developing this information superhighway? Should the government attempt to steer the whole process and force certain requirements upon industry, or should its role be to provide leadership, vision, and global standards such as they did for the GII?

As a former member of the Information Infrastructure Task Forces (IITF) remarked, "The role of the government should be to work closely with the various industry stakeholders in developing and fostering applications that will use the superhighway, and leave the building of the highway to these stakeholders whether they be in the private sector or nonprofit." The NTIA's mistake was that it did not form partnerships, or close working relationships, with governmental organizations, such as the National Governors Association or the National League of Cities. These groups often have a better sense of their constituents' needs. Congress has no desire to antagonize these powerful groups, especially in an election year when they need their support the most. Had the NTIA developed strong alliances with various governmental associations, Congress would likely not have gone after the NTIA with such a vengeance.

Although many of these governmental associations were invited to some early events, they were never engaged or approached to form partnerships and, as a result, felt relegated to the sidelines. Moreover, the NTIA's failure to partner with any governmental or intergovernmental association meant they could not turn to these groups for support when Congress threatened the NTIA with extinction. Hopefully, it is not too late for the NTIA to start creating these essential intergovernmental partnerships and work on developing projects that will strengthen the NII and safeguard citizens' rights. Important policy issues cannot be solved without full involvement by all the stakeholders, whether they be in the public or private sector. The real measure of progress is not how many reports are produced, or how many speeches are given, or even how many public policy issues are tackled but, rather, the successful outcomes of such efforts.

The IITF was supposed to develop comprehensive technology, telecommunications, and information policies that best met the needs of private citizens, corporations, and federal agencies. However, as it grew in importance, its effectiveness decreased because of the large number of political appointees who joined the various task forces, changed its priorities, and politicized its work. Now, even the work they have done cannot be released publicly because of the NTIA's diminished resources. As a result, the IITF lost its usefulness. Only the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) working group has demonstrated moderate success, and it is led by the Treasury Department, not by the Department of Commerce.

The NTIA, instead of being the government's leader or beacon for developing the information superhighway, has taken a back seat. Instead of becoming an effective advisor to the president, it became a glorified administrator of the IITF and the NII. Rather than search for market solutions to solve pressing public policy issues, it embraced administrative solutions which hindered rather than helped industry.

There is hope that all is not lost. The NTIA's recent realization of the necessity for partnering with industry, at least as concerns the V-Chip, may be a turning point in its relationship with other organizations. Hopefully, this small step will lead to a greater number of industry and government partnerships.

Judith Hellerstein

The author is an international information specialist for the International City/ County Management Association and the Membership and Outreach Coordinator for Americans Communicating Electronically, an information technology organization that works to improve citizen access to information and education through electronic channels.