Nelson: Putting citizens first

Leaders should focus on e-government’s effectiveness first and its efficiency second

In his February 2002 budget proposal to Congress, President Bush outlined recommendations for focusing government more on citizens and results, including expanding the use of technology as part of the e-government goal of his management agenda.

History shows us that the best leaders and organizations have always focused on producing superior products and services. Great leaders know that driving effectiveness always takes priority over driving efficiency.

In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal forever changed the nature of government programs. Even in bankruptcy, Lee Iacocca turned Chrysler around with a focus on quality, not cost savings. And Grace Hopper, one of the first women elevated to the rank of rear admiral, will always be remembered for changing the lives of everyone in the computer industry by developing the first programming language to recognize words rather than numbers.

We remember them and other great leaders for the positive effect they had on our society, business and culture. How many great leaders do we remember for saving money?

Bush clearly understands the importance of effectiveness, as evidenced by the increasing use of the Performance Assessment and Rating Tool to measure program results. Why is it then that so many e-government discussions during the past four years have focused not on effectiveness but on eliminating systems and saving dollars — all of them efficiency measures?  

Earlier this year, the Office of Management and Budget asked each agency to document its savings as a result of eliminating duplicative systems. Perhaps next year OMB could integrate the e-government and performance agendas by focusing on the effectiveness of e-government projects.

Likewise, congressional appropriators, often at the prompting of agency officials, have added language that limited spending by certain agencies on cross-agency e-government projects. With a new Congress, perhaps lawmakers will examine the extent to which those projects are meeting their constituents’ needs before making decisions that limit their effectiveness.

I appreciate the importance of using tax dollars wisely, prioritizing spending and reducing the deficit. I know, however, that saving money without first focusing on delivering results forces the best people in government to focus on the wrong things. 

The good news is that e-government initiatives such as eRulemaking, Grants.gov, and FirstGov have broken down organizational lines and demonstrated how collaborative government efforts can ensure that services are citizen-centric, which is the president’s highest priority.

We should focus the public discourse on the effectiveness of those and other cross-boundary projects, appropriate measures of performance and the best method for driving improvements to serve citizens better. Once those projects are firmly established, the time will be right to seek appropriate financial efficiencies. 

In the meantime, let’s focus on what people expect: easy-to-use, easy-to-find, high-quality and timely services from a government that is respectful of its taxpayers’ dollars.

Nelson is executive director of e-government for Microsoft Public Sector. She was previously chief information officer at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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