EPA begins draft of IT plan

The Environmental Protection Agency is drafting a new information technology management plan that for the first time would set "firm commitments and a detailed plan of action" for creating a "seamless environmental information system" to regulate pollution.

Described in a July 21 memo that was recently provided to FCW the agency's goals include integrating its databases allowing businesses to file reports electronically and making more of this information easily available online to the public . Although the EPA has already started these projects the agency is now expanding them and wants to complete them more quickly said Paul Wohlleben the EPA's deputy chief information officer.

The plan due Oct. 31 would relate the EPA's information systems to the goals it outlined in its overall strategic plan said Rick Martin director of enterprise information management with the agency. The strategic plan required under the Government Performance and Results Act describes what the agency wants to accomplish over the next few years.

"What's happened over the years is we have told people to do good IT stuff because it's good for them " Martin said. "What's different today is recognition that the programmatic business cannot continue without good IT."

"Initial Requirements and Guidelines"

The plan is not likely to change how the EPA spends its IT budget next year Wohlleben said because the agency requested funding increases for new technologies it wants to deploy such as electronic reporting and a new Environmental Data Registry. But the plan will provide "initial requirements and guidelines" for upgrading the agency's legacy systems.

Those legacy systems have hampered the EPA from responding quickly to pressure from the industries it regulates environmentalists and state governments to cut back on the paperwork it requires and to make the information it collects more easily available to the public. "The thing this really does [is] communicates the understanding of our senior leadership about how important it is that we break down our stovepipes and move to true integration " Wohlleben said.

The new initiative "provides leadership and stewardship for the information" to states that are trying to streamline their own regulatory operations said Christian Smith a research associate with the Environmental Council of the States which lobbies for state governments on environmental management issues.

For example Smith said many states also want to create systems for "one-stop" reporting by polluters and the EPA can help ensure that these systems are compatible with each other. "It's very important from the state cooperation angle."

Last month the EPA awarded eight $500 000 grants to states to develop their own single-point reporting systems bringing the total number of states involved in the program to 13. Most of these projects involve upgrading databases and other information systems and some also incorporate electronic filing of reports.

A Reason to Change

"What the EPA is doing is just about what New Mexico is doing " said Nathan Wade grant administrator for the One-Stop program with the New Mexico Environment Department. He added however that upgrading computer systems is not by itself the most complicated part of the project.

"If we create a bunch of neat computer things that don't give the regulated community a reason to use them they will go on doing things the old way " Wade said. Building systems that state employees will not want to use is also a risk.

A General Accounting Office study released last week on the EPA reform initiatives concluded that the EPA is having trouble "achieving buy-in" within its ranks for its new approach to regulation and the agency has found it hard to get agreement among outside stakeholders on specific initiatives. Although the report does not discuss the EPA's IT plans the improvements the agency wants to make in its systems support the programs GAO reviewed.

"Periodically the objectives and the projects and what they're driven towards needs to be clarified to people " Wohlleben said noting that EPA administrator Carol Browner announced the agency's IT plans at a meeting with key players in its reform efforts. He said the memo "really starts to clarify for internal and external people what they're all about."


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