Slow march toward online government

When President Bush took office in 2001, his official management agenda set the expansion of e-government as one of its cornerstones. A year later, Bush signed the E-Gov Act, which promised a leaner, more efficient federal government by, among other things, making it easier for citizens to interact with agencies online. Yet, despite this emphasis, a report by the General Accounting Office says progress has been mixed, due in no small part to a lack of funding.

The GAO’s report, released in March, looked at the progress of 25 high-profile, e-government projects sponsored by the Office of Management and Budget since 2001. The GAO found that, of the 91 objectives for these initiatives — such as developing a business case for consolidating federal payroll systems — approximately 36 per cent were fully or substantially achieved and 40 per cent were partially achieved after two years. For the rest, no significant progress was made and a few were abandoned as impractical or inappropriate. In May, another e-gov scorecard, this one a status report from the OMB, showed that only two agencies — the State Department and the Agency for International Development — improved their scores from December 2003 to March of this year.

If one drinks out of an e-gov glass that’s half-full, then the fact that many of the original objectives have been achieved speaks for progress. After all, the government has a two-century history as a highly-siloed bureaucracy, and massive transformation isn’t going to take place overnight. Looking at a half-empty glass, the 36 per cent success rate is disappointing, especially given that the projects were chosen based on their likelihood of being deployed in 18 to 24 months. And, despite the success of some e-gov projects, many citizens still find it just as difficult to interact with the government online.

Lack of funding for the projects is one obstacle. The E-Gov Act authorized US$345 million to pay for these and other projects over four years, but the actual funds allotted by Congress have been inadequate. In fiscal 2003 and 2004, the administration’s request for a total of US$90 million was slashed by congressional appropriations committees to US$8 million. According to Dave McClure, vice-president for e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government think tank, members of Congress have trouble understanding the value of a single fund that supports cross-agency initiatives. Many e-gov projects involve integrating systems among multiple agencies and need a source of money to make this integration happen.

This funding is hard to come by, and this frustrates federal CIOs. In a recent study conducted by the Information Technology Association of America and accounting firm Grant Thornton, CIOs noted that resource needs for e-gov were often identified after budgets had been developed, and they expressed frustration that they had to dig up funds from elsewhere in their budgets to advance e-government.

The good news is that CIOs are dedicated to advancing e-government, despite the difficulties. Department of Health and Human Services CIO Charles Havekost and representatives from 10 other agencies are building, a portal for government grant applicants, and have established an executive board that, in one of its first acts, voted on a funding plan. Everyone agreed to contribute from their own budgets. Havekost says the consensus helped generate the necessary executive support to keep the project moving forward.

The not-so-great news: Connecting citizens, businesses and the government with technology — and changing the culture of agencies that are used to operating in silos — is going to take years. “Every time I go back and look at the law, I’m reminded of how much is in it,” says McClure.

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