Editorial: Where are the innovators?

One of the unintended consequences of the federal government's increasingly sophisticated approach to e-government could be a loss of innovation.

The sophistication is evident in the first e-government progress report issued earlier this month by the Office of Management and Budget. The report detailed the Bush administration's progress in its efforts to satisfy 18 provisions of the E-Government Act of 2002.

The progress described, though specific to the E-Gov Act, is in fact the fruit of OMB's labors during the past two years to establish clear goals and to evaluate agencies based on their performance. OMB officials view

e-government primarily as an investment, and their businesslike approach is reflected in their talk of "lines of business" and "managing partners."

Unfortunately, the focus on progress — on the metrics and milestones of e-government — appears to have foreclosed any substantive discussion about e-government's broader potential.

It's hard to dispute the business cases made for such applications as Grants.gov and GoLearn.gov, but it would be a mistake to view these or any of the other initiatives as the full realization of e-government.

It is not a matter of which lines of business OMB should tackle next, but a question of what new ways technology can truly change how government operates. That question needs to be asked, but the answer should not come from OMB.

That is not to fault OMB. Like any emerging technology, the concept of e-government, which took shape during the heyday of the Internet boom, needed some management discipline before it could flourish. But discipline, which is OMB's specialty, is no substitute for innovation.

Innovation can rarely be driven from the top down. What OMB can do, though, is provide the opportunity and incentive for the visionaries ensconced in government and industry to step forward. The Defense

Department has taken this approach, providing seed money for defense agencies to test ideas that support Pentagon officials' vision of transformation. Not every project succeeds, but even the failures can serve to

educate.

Without this innovation, the federal government can still make significant progress, but it will end up nowhere special.

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