Secretaries of State Debra Bowen of California and Jennifer Brunner of Ohio spoke Monday at a conference hosted by the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet in Washington on the role and benefits of new technology on state governments.

Bowen said the challenge for new technology yesterday was to make government transparent and open to the public. Those needs remain, but the challenge today is to make government interactive: able to reach people in real time and receive input from citizens.

She said agencies and state employees historically view government information as secret or proprietary and changing that attitude is necessary for openness. Another obstacle is the internal infrastructure of state government. The legacy of tools and methods used by independent departments are often incompatible because government just "made it up as we were going along." The difficulties in integrating these disparate networks creates an impediment to openness.

Shifting attitudes and integrating networks aside, Bowen employs new media technologies to stay in contact and get feedback from citizens. Unlike some elected officials, she herself manages her Facebook and Twitter accounts, although she says her frequent posts and tweets "drives my communications department to drink" because "you hate to be the biggest leak in your own office."

She refers constituent services questions from these social networks to her staff. One Facebook message she received was a tip regarding election fraud. She dispatched an investigator and that tip led to an arrest.

Her office is considering utilizing Wikis to receive input from citizens on regulatory or rule making procedures. She is not afraid to try new technology, even if it fails, "We'll try them all. Some of them probably won't work."

She says California plans to use Twitter during the next election to reach the 24,000-plus polling stations across the state simultaneously. As long as at least one person at each station has a portable communication device, she'll be able to let everyone know about late breaking changes and answer common questions in real time.

Bowen said technology can cut costs for government. On election night, the servers for California's Secretary of State must be prepared for millions of hits and requests for information during a very short amount of time. But the rest of the year, that is excess and costly infrastructure. Bowen is looking to move to a "cloud" infrastructure - distributing the computer resources to other servers over the Internet.

Brunner of Ohio said her office collaborated with Google to provide precinct data and information, and election results, in a more immediate way. She looks to technology to promote more secure elections. "I think the technology hinders voter fraud because there are so many more ways to verify information," said Brunner. (Speaking of verification, unlike Mississippi Ohio requires some voter identification at the polls.) Brunner said they are able to bounce their voter database against state drivers license and other state data files to find discrepancies look for fraudulent registrations. (Ohio does not face the same Voting Rights Act restrictions as Mississippi does.)

While telephones are not new-tech, Cuyahoga County in Ohio provided every precinct a cell phone and a unique call in number. When the poll opened on Election Day, the poll manager called the number and a light on their precinct lit up on a map at the county election center. In a matter of seconds, the election officers knew if any precincts had not opened or if they needed assistance.

Technology provides solutions for public interaction with an open government in Mississippi, too. The Mississippi Accountability and Transparency Act of 2008 being implemented by the Department of Finance and Administration will facilitate greater public scrutiny on state government. A new state ethics law requires more information from elected officials and may be available online one day soon. The Mississippi Secretary of State's online information includes 16th Section land leases, corporation charters, PAC details and lobbyist disclosures. Digital campaign finance report filings will allow searchable databases rather than reading through pages of documents.

But the challenge for tomorrow is interaction.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation recently announced it will be using Twitter to inform drivers of traffic concerns, specifically hurricane traffic. With specific twitters for I-55, I-59, US-49, US-98, I-10, and I-20 MDOT will be able to advise those at home making travel plans or drivers on the road who enable their mobile Twitter feed.

Presumably, these would not be teenage drivers, as the Mississippi legislature outlawed teenage texting while driving. For a teenager, reading that mobile Tweet from MDOT could cost a $500 ticket. The same goes for Amber Alerts issued via text and Tweets. But you know the difficulties kids have these days multitasking new technology and old technology (a car). They're not nearly as adept as us old folks who may still text, Tweet and drive legally.

Brian Perry, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.