Congress must OK e-gov costs

Change in funding method limits initiatives for now

Agencies must secure congressional approval before implementing e-government initiatives under a new measure passed as part of an appropriations bill. Experts say the development could further hinder the near-term expansion of e-government initiatives but lead to long-term improvements.

The provision was part of the Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, the District of Columbia, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act of 2006, which President Bush signed Nov. 30, 2005.

The e-Rulemaking initiative is one of the e-government efforts that the rule will affect. Already facing funding shortfalls, the leaders of the e-Rulemaking program management office are working with the Office of Management and Budget to determine how to handle the new restrictions.

At the current rate, the e-Rulemaking initiative will exhaust its funds by mid-February, states a letter circulated by the initiative's executive committee dated Dec. 19, 2005. The letter outlines the new requirements.

According to the letter, the remaining funds will help maintain Regulations.gov, a Web site that provides information on all federal regulations. The letter was written by the executive committee's co-chairs, Kimberly Nelson, former chief information officer at the Environmental Protection Agency, and Donald Arbuckle, deputy administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The letter was posted on the Web site of OMB Watch, a watchdog group.

Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and information technology, is working with Arbuckle and Linda Travers, EPA's acting CIO, on the new restrictions.

According to the appropriations bill, an agency must submit a report to the congressional appropriations committees via OMB. Agencies will not receive funds until 15 days after the committees give their approval.

"We have no problem notifying Congress and sharing information with the Hill," said OMB spokesman Alex Conant. Although the law states specific requirements, Conant said, agencies are figuring out the details of what Congress wants to see in funding proposals.

The approval requirement will vary for different initiatives, he said, adding that the law impacts all aspects of e-government.

The new mandate "is not a death knell," said Mark Forman, a partner at KPMG's Federal Civilian Preferred Providers Services organization and former OMB administrator for e-government and IT. He added that Congress is pressuring agencies to devise a better approach. "I think this is actually a good sign. This is what e-gov is all about," he said.

Similar congressional mandates have set greater controls on specific agencies and how they fund initiatives. The new law affects agencies governmentwide.

Alan Balutis, president and chief executive officer of government strategies at Input, said the mandate could be helpful. "It gives the administration an opportunity to lay out a business argument at a single place before Congress on what the return will be," Balutis said.

E-government initiatives offer a wide range of benefits for agencies. OMB's approach to funding initiatives has been to gather money from agencies rather than seek congressional appropriations. However, agencies that don't contribute still benefit from the initiatives. Some experts say the new structure offers a balance.

"If the [appropriations bill's] language was written not so much to de-fund e-Rulemaking but instead to target OMB's unorthodox approach to funding the project, the ball is back in the administration's court to approach the funding issue the right way," said Robert Shull, OMB Watch's regulatory policy director.

"I'm going to go with optimism and believe this is just a hiccup, not a complete breakdown," he said.

Because of the funding shortfall, the e-Rulemaking executive committee will suspend all further agency implementation and development activities beginning the second quarter of fiscal 2006, the committee's letter states. The program management office will continue to develop the initiatives as funding allows.

Judi Hasson contributed to this report.

What Congress needs to hear

The Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, the District of Columbia, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act of 2006 requires that agencies report e-government funding requests to the House and Senate appropriations committees via the Office of Management and Budget.

The reports must include:

  • The funding amount.

  • The proposed use of the funds.

  • The proposal's relevance to agencies that contribute funds.

  • A description of activities receiving funds that agencies will not implement or only partially implement after transferring funding to an e-government initiative.

-- Matthew Weigelt

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