OMB readies agencies for e-commerce requirements

The Office of Management and Budget plans to issue within a month draft guidelines for how agencies should comply with a law that requires the federal government to make all transactions electronic in less than five years.

The draft guidelines, which will form one of the cornerstones of creating a digital government, will provide a road map for agencies to follow when trying to meet the requirements of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which set October 2003 as the deadline for agencies to conduct almost all of their business electronically.

"The guidelines would be what every federal manager needs to know to get started" on how to deploy electronic commerce, said Peter Weiss, a senior policy analyst at OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs who spoke today at a seminar about the law. Federal Sources Inc., a federal marketing and research firm in McLean, Va., sponsored the seminar.

Signed by President Clinton in October 1998, the Government Paperwork Elimination Act gives OMB and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration 18 months to develop procedures that agencies should follow to deploy electronic technologies such as digital signatures, which would verify the identity of a person who has "signed" an electronic document and ensure that the contents of the document were not altered during transmission.

The guidelines most likely will summarize the legal definitions of e-commerce and identify what is an electronic signature and when it is valid. The guidelines also will discuss the issue of authentication and ensuring the integrity of an electronically submitted document. In addition, the guidelines will stress privacy issues.

The guidelines will cover transactions between federal agencies, between agencies and business, between the federal government and state and local governments, and between the federal government and the public. The final guidelines will be issued 18 months from now.

Weiss said the guidelines will have no surprises. "Our strategy is, No. 1, to get [the guidelines] out early," he said. "Our strategy then will be to take the 18 months and then learn" what works and what does not.

OMB plans to allow 120 days—a relatively long period—for public comments on the guidelines. The agency expects various organizations—including the American Bar Association, banks, Internet companies and others who may have experience with e-commerce—to make suggestions.

Weiss warned that agencies should not wait 18 months for the final guidelines but should start planning how to make more paper-based transactions electronically. "I don't want to hear from anybody, 'Oh gee, we don't have to start thinking about this until OMB finalizes the guidance,'" he said.

Several ongoing e-commerce projects, such as those at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Customs Service, that date back 10 years serve as good examples that agencies can look to when trying to comply with the paperwork elimination law, Weiss said.

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