E-GOV: A year in review

One year ago this month, President Bush signed into law the E-Government Act of 2002, which Congress and administration officials hailed as a turning point for government operations.

The act provides agencies with a laundry list of technology guidelines and mandates intended to ease the transition of paper-based information and services to the Internet, opening up a new channel through which the public can interact with government.

As the one-year anniversary approaches, observers are questioning the impact of the law. For many, it simply conveys the message that e-government is a priority. For others, the law should — or at least could — help shape e-government now and in the future.

Several areas have received intense focus. As the act requires, agency officials are filing regular reports to the Office of Management and Budget that assess their progress on ensuring the privacy and security of their data and systems. And OMB has created a permanent e-government position.

But privacy and security were already near the top of the Bush administration's agenda, and a de facto e-government leader was already in place.

The law touched on nearly every aspect of technology management. It defined measurements of e-government success and expectations for action. It solidified legislative concepts and activities, attaching funding and deadlines to actions and outlining priorities. It also required the development of some key e-government applications.

The progress agencies make in lesser-known areas can serve as a useful gauge for measuring the act's overall impact. Here's a look at five such provisions, with a snapshot of the success agencies have had and the work still to be done.

Web site guidance

Synopsis: Talking the talk, but a long walk to walk

One of the underpinnings of e-government is the Internet itself. One goal of the E-Government Act is to develop some rules of the road that every agency must follow.

After the act has been in effect for two years, OMB officials are expected to release guidance for agency Web sites to ensure they include information about the agency, its strategic plan, tools to gather data and security measures to protect information. OMB, accordingly, has established an Interagency Committee on Government Information.

The committee is expected to conduct studies on the accessibility and preservation of government information, and make recommendations. The group has begun work and is focused on the deadline, OMB officials said.

"Basically, under the committee, we have a working group led by the Office of Citizen Services in [the General Services Administration] that is bringing together people from across the federal government to provide recommendations to OMB on this issue," an OMB official said. "There are so many people across government with roles in this. We really felt the need to gather an interagency group to do this."

However, a staff member for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee said the interagency committee has been established only on paper and there have been no meetings. Beyond Web site guidance, the group is charged with defining standards for categorizing government information and establishing schedules for implementing the standards.

"That committee is going to have a lot to do," the staffer said. "We're not just talking about government information already on the Internet. We're talking about information stored in any form and how that information can be made electronically searchable. That's very complicated when you think about how much government information there is, and you need interoperability standards on how it would be retrieved."

System interoperability

Synopsis: Focused on architecture, fuzzy on funding

An even more ambitious provision aims to solve agencies' perpetual lack of interoperable information systems. Although the legislation mandates that a study be performed within three years of the act's implementation to determine agencies' progress toward that integration, the real effort has taken the form of the federal enterprise architecture.

The architecture presents a framework for system development through five models. OMB has released versions of the performance, business, services and technical reference models, and will continue to revise them. The final and most complicated component — the data reference model — is in its final pre- release stages.

Agencies are required to link IT projects in the budget process to the federal architecture, which then allows OMB officials to help coordinate and integrate IT programs governmentwide.

In essence, this architecture work fits right into the language of the law, OMB officials said. The reference models "are in large part creating standards for interoperability," an official said. "So it made perfect sense to link this requirement up with the federal enterprise architecture."

It's not technology that stands in the way of interoperability, said Roger Baker, former chief information officer at the Commerce Department. Instead, it's cultural barriers that impede information and process sharing among agencies.

The act, he said, falls short in addressing interoperability, because funding has not been authorized to provide incentives for sharing.

"Interoperability is not a technology issue," Baker said. "It would be very, very straightforward to make the systems interoperable. The only people who want that are the technologists. There is a reason why the 40 [terrorist] watch lists exist, and it has nothing to do with technology."

Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International LLC and former chief of information policy and technology at OMB, echoed those funding concerns, particularly regarding the federal enterprise architecture. This seems to be a common problem with e-government, he said, and the Bush administration has not been effective in convincing Congress to spend the money.

"My contention is they have not educated, reached out effectively to the appropriations committees," he said. "The fact that stuff has been authorized but not appropriated shows they haven't done their homework. The job's only half done."

R&D repository

Synopsis: Good start but looking for closure

Another example of a job half done is the creation of a database on federal research and development funding. According to the law, the database should include details about each funding award, such as the dates of the opportunity and the total funds attached to the project.

The law was based on work already under way at the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, OMB officials said, and the interagency committee will expand those efforts.

The process is much like Grants.gov, a Web portal for information on federal grants available governmentwide, launched in October. Similarly, OMB would establish a policy framework for agencies, setting the standard for what information to post, officials said.

"R&D is just a different slice," one OMB official said. "All of those opportunities are available and viewable to the public in terms of what they are doing, who's doing it and how much money there is."

Committee members are looking for ways to expand NSF's Research and Development in the United States (RADIUS) system. Developed by Rand Corp., a nonprofit research institute, the system supports the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is the first comprehensive database that allows users to search for information on the more than $75 billion in annual federal R&D funds, according to Rand.

Despite authorizations in the act for $2 million each fiscal year through 2005, no money has been appropriated.

"They are looking for ways to refine the current system to comply with the act," said David Marin, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and one of the E-Government Act's authors. "The act authorizes appropriations for the development, maintenance and operation of the repository, but the funding has yet to be appropriated. That disappoints us."

Lieberman's staff member agreed that the NSF project needs funding, but said it's ready to be implemented today. "The existing RADIUS system is fully operational, and could be made publicly available immediately at essentially no additional cost," he said. "OMB may not yet understand how easy that is. They just need a modest dedicated funding stream, equivalent to past expenditures, to get it done."

Courthouse Web sites

Synopsis: Ahead of the curve before the race began

The law recommends each court establish and maintain a Web site with information on its location, rules or general orders, access to docket information of each case and written court opinions . The Web sites should be up and running within two years of the act's implementation.

However, the act didn't bring a sweeping transformation to the way the judicial branch does business, according to Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Courts. "That's because many of the requirements of the E-Government Act already have been met by the federal courts," she said.

Almost all courts of appeals, district courts and bankruptcy courts have Web sites, and several courts have exceeded the mandates, Redmond said. For example, in the middle district of North Carolina, the court's calendar, updated hourly during the workday, can be accessed online.

The act also requires access to electronic documents and written opinions, an effort the judiciary started a couple of years ago with creation of the Case Management/Electronic Case Files systems.

The systems now hold more than 14 million documents, Redmond said, and the number of courts using them increases each month.

Davis is pleased with the courts' progress, but said there is room for improvements.

"Some Web sites have search engines," Marin said. "However, the Court Administration and Case Management Committee of the Judicial Conference is working on overcoming logistical challenges to improving Web site search ability and establishing uniform search engines across federal court Web sites. We'll need to keep a close eye on that."

Online tutorial

Synopsis: Less a question of progress than process

Although many provisions of the E-Government Act come with hard and fast deadlines, others are tougher to pin down.

One often overlooked section of the act recommends that OMB officials work with the Education Department and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), an independent organization, to develop a Web-based tutorial for accessing government services and information online. As envisioned by the law's authors, the tutorial would be available at community technology centers and libraries nationwide.

The act authorized $2 million each for fiscal 2003 and 2004, but officials are relying on existing resources, the official said. The tutorial does not have a deadline attached to it, and the official called it an ongoing process.

OMB has asked IMLS to take the lead on this project. Mamie Bittner, the institute's director of public and legislative affairs, said it is partnering with Education and state and local libraries on this effort, but a spokesman for Education said IMLS has volunteered to spearhead the effort for the agency.

Nonetheless, Bittner said institute officials would be expanding on similar work under way at the agency, such as a tutorial developed for grant seekers.

"An initial meeting has occurred to frame this effort," she said of the tutorial suggested in the act. "The group will develop a guide for use by community technology centers, public libraries and citizens to help them access government services online."

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