NPR: Still more vision than reality
- By Elana Varon, Heather Harreld
- Sep 07, 1997
When Vice President Al Gore introduced the National Performance Review four years ago he envisioned federal agencies moving from "an Industrial Age government to an Information Age government " reinventing themselves using information technology.
Despite some progress the NPR still remains more a vision than a reality. Agencies have not yet transformed themselves into the more modern efficiently run organizations originally envisioned.
The NPR which celebrates its birthday this week is the most ambitious federal reform effort in a generation. It endorsed and publicized scores of projects that applied IT to the work of government such as allowing citizens to file taxes or apply for benefits online. Although agencies have begun many such projects most are not completed and in many cases their benefits have yet to be realized according to federal officials industry leaders researchers and others familiar with the program.
Projects such as the development of a computer kiosk providing one-stop electronic access to the combined services of the Internal Revenue Service the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs have barely begun because the government has not settled on key security and privacy policies. SSA's first attempt to provide benefits information online was shut down after only a month because it could not adequately protect personal data.
It has taken four years for agencies building a comprehensive international trade database to agree on a set of baseline information that they will collect. The International Trade Data System is scheduled to begin operating in two years provided that the administration approves an implementation plan and system design next spring and that Congress agrees that agencies can share information.
"It's a question of whether the glass is half full or half empty " said John Koskinen former deputy director for management with the Office of Management and Budget in an interview given before he left office in July. "Measured against a range of possibilities we still have a way to go."
Of the more than 1 400 ideas that agencies put forward as their official contributions to reinvention - ideas that the NPR office tracks - FCW identified 160 that entail buying managing or deploying information systems. Of those 28 percent are complete but many have yet to produce measurable savings according to interviews with knowledgeable agency officials (see chart on Page 60).
An NPR initiative to develop a comprehensive database of environmental information gathered by various government agencies is expected to come online this year but National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said they have no way to quantify the database's benefits such as how much money it will save. Progress on a governmentwide e-mail system has been slow to develop and system designers have been unable to summarize the savings associated with this initiative.
Meanwhile agencies reported that 46 percent of their projects are still in progress and 6 percent have either been substantially revised or abandoned. The status of the remaining 20 percent of the initiatives could not be determined either because the agencies in charge of them declined to provide the information they could not locate the data or they did not respond to press inquiries.
Furthermore despite the NPR's emphasis on streamlining and making public interactions with government easier the public itself is not completely on-board. For example SSA's online benefits access system drew fire from consumer groups and Congress because of its lack of privacy safeguards. In addition many small businesses objected vigorously this year to a requirement that they file their payroll taxes electronically.
"Our members are not opposed to progress " said Jamie Wickett the manager of legislative affairs for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. But a recent NFIB survey found that only half of its members have computers and Wickett said many firms worried that the mandate would increase their costs in other ways.
The initiatives examined by FCW do not include projects spawned in agency "reinvention labs" and elsewhere that were not formally endorsed by the NPR. About these "you hear a lot of interesting anecdotes " said Peter Plastrick a consultant who with Gore adviser David Osborne wrote a recent book on government reform titled Banishing Bureaucracy. "There's some success and some places where there's a lot of frustration. It's kind of a typical story.""It's valuable to keep score and we're all about measuring results " said Greg Woods the NPR's deputy director and its primary advocate for IT but he prefers to be circumspect.
Woods said that because projects can change with technology it is important not to restrict the examination of a project to a particular NPR recommendation.
Many people interviewed for this story said the NPR's greatest successes to date are some broad policy changes that could lead to more effective uses of IT. These stem from three major laws that had been percolating before President Clinton took office and some believe got a critical boost from White House reform efforts: the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) the Clinger-Cohen Act and the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA).
These laws swept away cumbersome procurement regulations making it easier for agencies to buy the latest technology and set out a new discipline for development of information systems that endorsed reinvention.
While "by no means finished " said Bert Concklin executive director of the Professional Services Council acquisition reform "is now pervasive and being pursued across government."
Linda Renfro president of Lockheed Martin Information Support Services said procurement reform "has raised the whole level of competition " although she added that it remains to be seen whether agencies plan their systems in a way that produces the savings that the new regulations promise.
Passage of two other laws - the 1994 Government Management Reform Act and the 1996 Debt Collection Improvement Act - gave teeth to another NPR goal: automating more than $700 million in financial transactions. Linda Garvelink who promotes electronic financial transactions for the National Automated Clearinghouse Association said Gore's advocacy of the technology influenced agencies to budget for the applications.
Agencies are moving toward making almost all vendor and employee payments electronically within the next 16 months. Meanwhile an NPR-initiated task force has pushed state governments to cooperate on providing federal benefits electronically as well said Helena Sims the senior director with the Electronic Benefits Transfer Council whose members include state financial institutions federal agencies and retailers.
By early next year according to OMB 23 states will be providing benefits through EBT over the next two years federal agencies that deliver benefits directly such as the VA are expected to join the program. OMB estimates a 66 percent savings for every check replaced by electronic transfers.
Agency officials report that the NPR has served similarly as a catalyst and a cheerleader for their own reform efforts. Karen Cleary Alderman who is in charge of re-engineering the Defense Department's travel systems said the project was driven more by pressure from Congress to streamline operations. But early on the NPR awarded DOD's travel team one of its first Hammer Awards - the program's seal of approval - and the publicity gave the project needed encouragement she said.
Alderman said the new travel system will reduce labor costs by 56 percent and cut nearly in half the time it takes to make payments. DOD will award its first contract for the system which will serve 11 states this fall and expects to test it in the spring but "the rollout schedule is not completely nailed down " she said.
Louis Razzino the process manager with the Customs Service said the NPR helped "kick-start" a project his agency began in 1995 with the Immigration and Naturalization Service the State Department and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to clear travelers through U.S. airports faster. "NPR coordinated a meeting and asked us within 90 days to come back with a recommendation " he said. One result was a decision to jointly develop new data-analysis tools to identify "high-risk" passengers those tools are being tested this summer in the nation's nine largest airports.
"We've asked the airports to develop tests that will run for at least 90 days " said Frank Walsh the Customs project manager. "We're hoping to see some good results by the end of the year."
Motivating agencies to develop applications through which they can provide services electronically has been a hallmark of the NPR. In the past four years agencies have sprouted numerous customer-oriented sites such as the U.S. General Store which offers answers through the telephone or through computer kiosks to commonly asked questions about the government.
Many of these agencies are now moving away from "passive publishing" to interactive applications for distributing information said Donald Johnson director of the National Technical Information Service. NTIS runs FedWorld a Web site that offers access to more than a dozen government Web pages and bulletin boards.
For example a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission bulletin board generates letters to residents who may be affected by pending regulations and allows them to post comments on the rules or read comments posted by others. "These interactive applications are really now affecting the efficiency of government and that of course was the goal to begin with " Johnson said adding that this trend is "just now reaching the point where we're beginning to see a payoff in more efficient operations."
NTIS did not however provide any information about how much agencies have paid it in fees to use FedWorld and agencies generally have been unable to quantify what improvements have resulted from online applications whether hosted on FedWorld or elsewhere.
Explosion of Internet Use
Nevertheless the NPR has seized upon the Internet as a tool for enabling all sorts of electronic transactions. Federal agency use of the Internet has exploded since the NPR began agencies spent $50 million on Internet-related activities in 1994 and more than $182 million in 1997 according to a recent General Accounting Office report.
According to several sources however much of this increased use can also be attributed to the massive commercial growth of Internet technology. Rich Kellett a General Services Administration employee who heads the Federal Webmasters Forum said many Webmasters had already begun to experiment with Internet technology before the NPR began.
"NPR created an environment that gave more emphasis to information technology " Kellett said. "At the same time you've got this tremendous growth in industry. It was all those things working together that caused it to explode."
One Web application that the NPR has promoted heavily is the U.S. Business Advisor which is a Web page that offers businesses answers to questions about federal regulations. Created by Small Business Administration employees in 1994 its designers convinced the NPR to champion the application and to involve other agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor Department.
But according to sources familiar with the project it also has run into a common problem faced by interagency initiatives: It has yet to find a permanent home and with it a reliable budget to keep it going. "Unless the cooperation that's achieved voluntarily through test phases turns into legitimacy and ownership of these issues they recede " said Jerry Mechling the director of the Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The future of Business Advisor is not yet secure."
The SBA the de facto manager of the site is nevertheless moving ahead with a major overhaul of Business Advisor adding an application that will provide answers to international trade questions and that will allow users to structure financing deals online. This interactivity is a major goal for the project said Jim Van Wert the SBA's senior adviser for policy planning.
'Biggest Change to Come'
Although NPR evangelists view such cooperative applications as the wave of the future they admit that they have not yet achieved much of what they have promised in this area. "I do think the biggest change is still to come " said James Flyzik the Treasury Department's deputy assistant secretary for information systems and the leader of the original NPR IT team. The fact that agencies are exploring joint applications is itself "a major difference " he added.
IT is likely to play an even larger role in reinvention in the coming years. The NPR's "Access America" report issued in February outlined a framework for fostering an integrated "electronic government." Woods said the NPR agenda for the next four years due in October will have even more initiatives designed to link reinvention with IT.
But as the Year 2000 approaches Gore will be campaigning for president and some observers said reform efforts could be easily politicized. "Since it comes out of the vice president's office there is always a political spin on some of these things " observed John Mercer a former Senate aide who worked on management reform. Others worry that with the departure of NPR director Elaine Kamarck this summer the program has lost a vital link between Gore and federal agencies.
But Gore apparently is expecting voters to measure his performance on the achievements of the reinvention program. Woods said Gore is "more intent than before" on achieving the NPR's goals.
"If the government isn't reinvented " Woods said "it will fall to [Gore] personally."
- Freelance writer Victoria White contributed to this report.