Survey asks agencies to calculate costs

Spooked by the amount of money agencies may be spending on building and maintaining Internet systems Congress has ordered a governmentwide survey of such costs. The survey which the General Accounting Office sent to agencies Nov. 1 has sparked some fear of a future crackdown on Internet use.

Congress is concerned "with runaway Internet-based costs " said Ron Hack director of the Office of Systems and Telecommunications Management at the Commerce Department which assisted GAO in piloting the survey.

"They're going on the notion that the government can cut out waste " he said.

Congressional Intent Unclear

While it is unclear what Congress will do with the survey results once they are released next spring Hack said he hopes agencies maintain their freedom to use the Internet. "I hope Congress doesn't become too much of a control freak on this " he said.

Warren Suss president of Warren H. Suss Associates a consulting firm based in Jenkintown Pa. said it is "clear that agencies have been making substantial investments as a whole in the Internet " but it will be difficult to get accurate numbers. "In terms of cost-effectiveness it's one of the best investments agencies can make " he added.

Echoing Hack's sentiments Suss said the Internet is an area "where you want to encourage a lot of initiative. I hope Congress doesn't [decide] to micromanage."

In the survey GAO asked agencies to identify how much money they spent to set up and maintain Internet access World Wide Web sites and bulletin board systems for their employees during the last three fiscal years.

GAO said the survey is being done at the request of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. However a Stevens staff member denied knowledge of the survey which asks agencies to break down hardware software access personnel and training costs and whether they have issued any guidance concerning Internet use.

First Such Survey

GAO believes this is the first time anyone has taken such an itemized account of Internet expenditures. "There is no central location where this information is kept and no line items in budgets for these things " a GAO official said.

Many agencies say it will be difficult to provide anything more than estimates or lump-sum figures. However at press time agencies had not yet received copies of the survey and could not comment on the specifics of the information being requested.

The survey is due back to GAO within 30 days.

A Challenge for Agencies

Ron West chief information officer at NASA said the agency does not specifically gather costs on Internet-related usage.

"There's not a line-item in the budget...that says NASA spends so much on home pages. I have costs for browsers software and hardware but I've never broken it out " he said.

The infrastructure at the National Institutes of Health supports the Internet along with other services said Frank Hartel the alternate CIO there.

"I don't have a clue how you would itemize expenses like...our mainframe operation " Hartel said. "Most everything would be contaminated with something."

For example NIH home pages are accessed by external users but also are part of the agency intranet that employees use for daily tasks. Also because Internet technology is so new and its full potential has not yet been tapped judging which agency expenses are legitimate would be difficult he said.

Centralization Helpful

Not all agencies however find the exercise challenging. Paul Wohlleben deputy CIO of the Environmental Protection Agency said it would be fairly simple to obtain a "pretty reasonable approximation" of the agency's Internet investment.

"We tend to provide more centrally our Internet hookups at least for a good chunk of our agency " he said. "All of our publishing access information is on one family of servers. It's a reasonably confined area. The cost of creating an electronic document is not what we're tracking. We're tracking taking that document and publishing it on the Web."

Similarly the Agriculture Department manages Internet access from a central location. "We'll be able to [break down costs because] we use a common access service to connect to the Internet " said Dan Crosson telecommunications specialist at USDA.

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