E-government at funding crossroads

Lawmakers tighten reins on projects as agencies struggle to explain their value

Congressional appropriators, taking their strongest stance on e-government to date, have applied spending restrictions that would leave the 25 government- wide projects and Lines of Business initiatives struggling to move forward.

Committee staff people on the Hill insist Congress doesn’t have anything against e-government, but that agencies’ failure to explain the value of the projects has caused lawmakers to balk at funding the cross-agency systems.

“Everything else in an agency’s budget needs to be justified, why not e-government?” a Senate Appropriations Com- mittee staff member said. “They could not answer what the metrics for success were. If this was a business, they would know what they were getting out of it. It seems like a simple question, but then they wrap you around a post with their answer.”

In three fiscal 2007 spending bills, lawmakers have placed the toughest restrictions yet on the ability of many agencies to transfer funds to help pay for the 25 Quicksilver and Lines of Business projects.

The restrictions would stop—or at the very least severely delay—the flow of more than $40 million between agencies, based on 2006 data.

The provisions come despite the Office of Management and Budget’s best efforts to explain why Congress should continue to fund these presidential priorities.

In addition to the congressional limitations, agency support seems to be wavering. The Appropriations Committee staff member said it took executive department officials more than four months to answer what the staff member called four basic questions posed by the lawmakers about why these initiatives are worthwhile.

The questions, posed by the Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations Subcommittee, were:
  • What specific benefits does the agency receive regarding e-government activities?

  • What savings do the e-government projects generate?

  • What is the offset for the reprogramming of funds to cover e-government projects?

  • What exactly does the money go to?

Additionally, the Senate staff member said, more than a few agency officials have contacted the committee to complain about the initiatives.

Stalled projects

The House and Senate appropriations committees have moved 2007 funding bills that would effectively stall many of the e-government projects, as at least 11 agencies would have to justify to members why they are transferring the money and what benefits they are receiving.

The provisions are far from final—the Senate has yet to take up many of the bills, and the two chambers will work out their differences in conference committee. OMB still has plenty of chances to remove or at least mitigate the restrictions, as it succeeded in doing in the past two years.

“OMB and the agencies continue to meet with Congress to further inform them of the available benefits and increased opportunities created by e-government initiatives,” said an OMB official, who requested anonymity. “In the coming months, we will continue to actively work with lawmakers and their staffs to address concerns and dispel myths about e-government and other initiatives in the President’s Management Agenda.”

This would be the third straight year that agencies would have to justify why they are transferring funds and what benefits they are receiving for reassigning the money. In 2005, Congress did not approve the funding transfer for Commerce, Justice, the Small Business Administration and State until Sept. 30—the last day of the federal year.

This year, four agencies—Commerce, Justice, SBA and the Transportation Department—received approval June 30, the last day of the third quarter of the year.

The Office of Personnel Management, at press time, had yet to receive approval, an OPM spokesman said.

And each year since the 2002 budget, congressional efforts to stall e-government have increased, initially hitting a few small agencies but now affecting three major spending bills. And OMB’s ability to fight them off has diminished.

One government official with knowledge of the e-government projects said the answers the committees are looking for are not that easy.

“They are looking for tangible dollar costs and savings, and e-government provides an invaluable service to citizens which is many times difficult to measure,” the official said. “Some funds cover the front end of a system, or the integration of systems, but it is often difficult to turn an existing system off entirely. The committee wants to know if an agency is spending $800,000 on a project, where is the offset in the agency’s budget to pay for it?”

A second government official with knowledge of the projects added that the committees don’t necessarily like or understand the idea of spending money to save money.

“If you modernize a system one time for many agencies, the cost is minimal compared to doing it for every agency,” the official said.
The congressional staff members also said OMB’s 183-page report released in January helped, but did not provide enough specific data.

“A lot of these things are systems that are not broke, so why fix them?” said a House Appropriations Committee staff member. “If OMB wants the committee to pony up cash that will be shifted around, they have to tell us how much they are spending and what the return is on the back end.”

The second government official said producing performance data is difficult because it is tough to come up with metrics when you never had a baseline to begin with.

Redundant projects?

The House staff member pointed to Grants.gov and E-Payroll as two projects that appear to be redundant to other, pre-existing systems.

“The committee provided money for the Federal Transit Administration to develop a grants management site. It works well for them, so why should they get dinged for money for Grants.gov?” the staff member said. “The Federal Aviation Administration can’t use E-payroll, so why should they have to pony up money? If OMB can’t explain how E-Payroll will revolutionize the world, I don’t see why the committee should invest in it.”

The House staff member said e-government is a huge investment, and the committee wants to see timelines, expectations, outcomes and savings.

The Senate staff member added that OMB has been pushing its e-government agenda for five years now and should be able to quantify savings.

“The committee supports the concept of e-government, but if they can’t answer simple questions, it makes you wonder,” the staff member said. “I want to be able to go back to the chairman and say what they are doing is not a boondoggle.”

OMB is trying to make its case. In addition to the mandated report, deputy director for management Clay Johnson has held several meetings with Hill staff members, the committee and other federal sources confirmed.

“OMB issues frequent updates highlighting the agencies’ successes in managing the initiatives’ progress by informing the public of improved services levels and benefits,” the OMB official said. “For example, we recently announced a new online resource available to small businesses on Business.gov. ... Like other e-government initiatives, this one-stop shopping access significantly reduces the challenges of communicating with agencies and makes government more efficient and accessible to the people it serves.”

Lost ground

But even as OMB makes its case, it has a lot of ground to make up.
The first government official said OMB is trying to fix four years of damage. And, the official said, communication is starting to open up, and now projects leaders must take it upon themselves to make their case.

Agencies, however, have been told by OMB not to take their case to the Hill, but to let the administration handle it, agency officials said.

“Most of the communication with the Senate has been through our budget office,” said Lisa Westerback, Commerce’s director of the office of IT, policy and planning.

“We need to prepare earlier and anticipate their questions better,” she said.
OMB also doesn’t expect the need for funding to last forever.

“As these initiatives expand and mature, initiatives and agencies must develop self-sustaining funding models rather than rely on centrally required funding in order to provide the best service possible to the public,” the OMB official said. “Initiatives have developed fee-for-service funding models that equitably share the costs incurred on a transaction basis among agencies, as well as between agencies and vendors, based on the purchasing agency’s usage.”

In the meantime, however, the case for e-government continues to get harder, and projects suffer from delays. n

ONLINE EXTRA: As OMB and the appropriations committees debate e-government’s value, the initiatives take the hit, delaying projects while waiting for funds. GCN.com, Quickfind 628.

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