R&D experts pitch e-gov funding plan

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"Brand's new day"

The research and development community has an unusual idea to sell: Rather than waiting yet another year for Congress to supply a central e-government fund, agencies should tap into an existing multibillion-dollar pot of money.

Some officials believe the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, though typically not associated with short-term projects, can be steered toward developing e-government solutions — helping agencies start new projects not covered by their budgets.

E-government "right now isn't getting any money at all, so people are trying to find innovative solutions," said Tony Stanco, associate director for e-government at George Washington University's Cyber Security, Policy and Research Institute. "SBIR is not a part of that funding, but is another pocket of money."

The 20-year-old SBIR, managed by the Small Business Administration, reserves a percentage of R&D funding in 10 agencies and receives a steady stream of $1.6 billion annually, which could grow to $2 billion with the addition of the Homeland Security Department. Meanwhile, congressional conferees approved $3 million for the fiscal 2004 central e-government fund, $42 million less than the Bush administration's request and $2 million less than the fiscal 2003 budget.

Under SBIR, agency officials identify their technology needs and businesses submit proposals, competing for the funds. The idea is that the small businesses will rely on open-source solutions, saving the government money and offering universal solutions. The government gets inexpensive technologies, and small businesses get a boost. Using the SBIR program for e-government is a new idea, so proponents are reaching out to agencies to demonstrate the possibilities. The CIO Council's Emerging Technology Subcommittee has begun holding quarterly conferences to bring together small businesses, e-government managers and venture capitalists.

"The venture capitalists wouldn't normally talk to e-gov program managers," Stanco said. "It's just not their audience, and small businesses were having a hard time navigating."

The concept is that the program would result in a repository of reusable components so that a manager of one of the 24 e-government initiatives can seek cheaper, collaborative solutions, said Brand Niemann, a computer scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency and a member of the CIO Council's Architecture and Infrastructure Committee.

"We think this is one way to deal with this problem" of low funding, Niemann said. "The federal enterprise architecture is all about reusable components. You have to break these big monolithic systems into components and you have to create the marketplace."

Raul Valdez-Perez, president and co-founder of Vivisimo Inc., didn't have e-government in mind when the company developed search software for the National Science Foundation. However, he said he can see a trend toward e-government, because the SBIR program focuses on the needs of agencies.

"Agencies say they are interested in receiving proposals on a certain topic," he said. "It's supply and demand."

Kesh Narayanan, NSF's director of industrial innovation programs, said his agency would be open to any new proposal as long as it fits the agency's broad technology needs and follows the research impetus behind the program. "SBIR is research," he said. "It has to have the scientific novelty in that."

Linda Williams, SBA's associate administrator for policy and planning, said the program is strictly for research and development, and e-government initiatives must have that element to be funded through SBIR.

"I think it depends on the nature of the e-gov initiative and whether or not they have an impact on R&D," she said. "Most of the innovative technology through e-gov is looking at how we can use existing technology and avoid duplication. I am not sure SBIR is the right vehicle for e-government."

Tony Frater, a former Office of Management and Budget portfolio manager, was also skeptical. The foundation of the e-government initiatives is rapid implementation, which SBIR's more lengthy timetable would impede, he said. SBIR may be a good option for other major agency projects, but it doesn't fit the e-government mold, he said.

"One of the critical aspects of an e-gov project is that it is delivered" quickly and effectively, said Frater, now vice president of government relations for the Dutko Group Companies. "In order to be effective, the idea had to go from the white board to implementation in 12 to 18 months or less if possible. That's the time frame we worked under," he said.

Advocates of using SBIR to fund e-government projects say they recognize the challenges and are reaching out to state economic groups and the private sector to find solutions already in the making. Companies likely already have similar projects under way that can be built on, Stanco said.

E-government funding will be the focus of an Emerging Components conference Jan. 26, 2004, sponsored by the CIO Council's Architecture and Infrastructure Committee. The conference is intended to help agencies develop plans for identifying and adopting reusable software components as part of their e-government strategies. Niemann, Stanco and others hope to encourage agencies to take advantage of SBIR funding. For more information, go to www. componenttechnology.org.

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