When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?  Still?

In 2009, I wrote a blog titled:  “When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?”

It’s time to see if much progress has been made, but first some background …

people that public officials call citizens or voters or residents are
not single-minded civic machines.  Most of the time, they are consumers
and workers outside of the public sector.  And so what happens outside
of the public sector affects their expectations of what should happen in
the public sector.

One of the more frequent parts of a
consumer’s life these days is being able to track things.  Here are just
a few of the many diverse examples, almost all of which have been
around for at least a few years: track your Domino’s pizza
order from the oven to your front door; track shipments, at all stages,
through FedEx or UPS or even USPS; track the path of a car that you
ordered via Uber; track an airline flight so you know when to leave for the airport to pick up a relative or friend.

not enable citizens to track their government transactions in
mid-stream?  While suggestions of this kind are often proposed to
increase transparency of government, the tracking actually serves a much
simpler goal – to reduce frustration on the part of the citizen.

people can see where their request or application is, they will have a
lower sense of frustration and a greater sense of control.  If the
citizens could also get an estimate of how long it usually takes to go
through each step of an approval process, all the better.


In the public sector, this kind of tracking was very rare in 2009.  The standout was the UK, for example enabling residents to driving license applications.

2009, we’ve seen some more ways to track requests and applications.  
This has been especially true of requests under various freedom of
information laws, such as the US Justice Department’s.  However, the
average citizen is not submitting FOIL requests – I suspect that most
come from media employees.

You can track your request for US government grants
– again something that the average citizen isn’t focused on.  The US
Internal Revenue Service IRS2go app lets you track the status of your
refund, which is likely to be of interest to a much larger number of

While it is difficult for me to judge from this distance
how well it actually works, certainly one of the broadest and most
ambitious efforts to let residents track their requests is in India, not the US or Europe even.


Alas, in New York City, the government’s website tells you call 311 to track applications for Food Stamps.

In South Carolina, a “Multi-Agency Partnership Portal
provides a reasonably good way of applying for various health and
support programs.  Although the website refers to seeing the status of
the application, it’s not clear from the documentation how you’d do that.

Colorado’s version of the same kind of website, called PEAK, makes it very easy to track status.


Although Indiana also does this, its website seems much more complicated than Colorado’s.

the City of San Francisco, which aims to be a technology leader, has
had its difficulties in enabling people to do the simple tracking of,
for example, building permits.  Its website refers back to a partial implementation two years ago, but no recent update.

Even worse, one of the examples from 2009 was from the District of Columbia, where you could the track the status of building permit applications.  If you try that now, you’ll get this backtracking message:

has removed its permit status check page also known as Online Building
Permit Application Tracking (OBPAT) application from its website.

recognizes that some constituents are disappointed about this
decision.  In short, DCRA found that-the information was too often
unreliable and resulted in misinformation to constituents.  This is
totally unacceptable, DCRA is hopeful that the site will eventually be
restored, but the data issues must be resolved before it is.  DCRA is
committed to transparency, but transparency is helpful when accurate
information is available.  It is DCRA’s goal to have truthful, accurate
communication from staff, and the public access sites need to reflect
that as well.”

Clearly, there are still many situations where people want to track their interaction with the government and cannot.

course, the ultimate goal, in so far as possible, is to complete those
transactions instantaneously online, like the fishing license app that Michigan makes available.  Then the tracking problem disappears, but that’s a subject for a future blog post.)

So the answer to the question?

the last seven years, there has only been a little progress here and
there in some areas of government, but not the massive change that
technology makes possible.  

Consider an analogy.  While
every government, for instance, expects that it needs a formal budget
document, most apparently don’t yet have an expectation that they need
to make it easy for people to find out the status of their requests for
common services.  In this Internet age that is no longer something new. It’s time to get moving on it.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved