Congress cuts e-gov funds ? again

Lawmakers continued their recent tradition of appropriating only a small amount of the Bush administration's e-government fund request in the fiscal 2005 omnibus spending bill.

For fiscal 2005, administration officials requested $5 million in directly appropriated funds and authority to use $40 million in federal agency fees collected by the General Services Administration. But lawmakers appropriated

$3 million, and they rejected the administration's request for permission to draw from the GSA fund.

But the numbers show an improved relationship between the Bush administration and Congress, said Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator of e-government and information technology. By comparison, the Senate wanted to give the fund $1 million last year.

"We asked for $5 million in appropriated dollars, and we got $3 million," Evans said. "That's 66 percent. That's not bad."

In addition, OMB officials convinced lawmakers to purge language from a House-approved appropriations bill that would have banned the Interior Department, Energy Department and Forest Service from spending $13.3 million on four e-government projects.

Lawmakers have appropriated $16 million for the broader e-government fund since fiscal 2002, which is far less than the amount Bush administration officials originally sought: $100 million over three years.

"Right now there's enough to do what we need to do," Evans said.

She said progress would accelerate on some of the statutory requirements created by the E-Government Act of 2002 if more money were available. She added, however, that congressional funding levels don't constrain the agency's mission to shut down redundant IT systems.

If anything, a generously funded e-government fund would hinder OMB officials' ability to cut off overlapping agency system investments, said Mark Forman, Evans' predecessor.

"You literally don't need a separate funding pot," he said. "There's plenty of money in the system." The fund's role is akin to a venture capital firm providing initial funding, Forman said.

President Bush promised $100 million during the 2000 election campaign. But once in office, administration officials "recognized that there was so much redundancy [that] $100 million was a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things," Forman said.

OMB officials have long

relied on agencies to pay for

e-government initiatives, a system known as pass-the-hat funding. Often taken as evidence of e-government's low placement on the federal agenda, the funding plan ensures that agencies have an incentive to participate in e-government, he said.

A fatter e-government fund could create parallel e-government initiatives — one federal solution and one agency solution, Evans said.

With more money, agency officials would have argued with OMB officials: "Why don't you fund the initiatives because you've got the money, and we'll continue doing our thing?" she said.

Because of pass-the-hat funding and OMB's goal of eliminating redundancy, agency officials are more involved in e-government initiatives to ensure that governmentwide solutions meet their needs, Evans said.

Still, OMB officials said the administration will seek more funding again next year.

Yet because congressional committees generally oversee only one major department, however, congressional appropriators are more likely to fund single-agency initiatives, not governmentwide solutions, Forman said. System overlap will continue unless lawmakers change how they fund agencies, he added.

David McClure, a former Government Accountability Office director for IT management issues, said officials have discussed revising Congress' committee structure, but that task is not easy. An interim step might be to hold hearings with multiple appropriations members, he added.

A need to revise the funding structure could become more compelling if e-government evolves from individual initiatives to a modular framework of governmentwide IT building blocks, Forman said.

E-government stands at that turning point, Evans said. Agency skepticism has been replaced with cooperation.

"It's not OMB that's doing this stuff," she said. "It's the agencies that are doing all the work." Real transformation will begin when government officials focus more on measuring performance, she added.

Administration officials made a good decision to proceed with interim steps rather than a giant plan, McClure said, adding that a measured pace with bursts of success is more convincing to participants. "It's very different from the past when none of it was demonstrated; it was articles of faith," he said.

Everyone agrees, however, that the work ahead is challenging.

"We've created the portals and the Internet faces for government," McClure said. "Now, we've got to go behind the curtain and examine process change and the use of people issues, which are much more difficult."

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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