EPA to create central IT modernization fund

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to establish a central information technology fund that eventually will provide $30 million a year for systems modernization projects.

The plan, tucked into the EPA's fiscal 2000 budget, aims to provide more predictable funding for multiple-year IT projects and encourage agency program offices to build systems that conform to the agency's future IT architecture, said George Bonina, national manager for the EPA's Reinventing Environmental Information (REI) project.

"We have a lot of systems re-engineering work to do," Bonina said, but agency program offices, which are funded separately, often do not have enough money to do that work. The plan would require each program office to contribute a percentage of its IT budget to the fund, in effect subsidizing each other's projects.

Those who work with the EPA, including regulated businesses, state governments and environmentalists, think the idea might help the agency to integrate its fragmented systems and databases, making environmental data easier to report and distribute. But they also said the plan might not work unless the agency thoroughly revamps how it uses the information it holds.

"Good planning, good coordination and working through what business processes information systems are supposed to support are far more critical than having the money to do [the projects]," said Mary Blakeslee, director of information management with the Environmental Council of the States. "We'd want to know more details. We've pushed them more to look at the way they are managing information resources and look at [that] in its entirety."

Jim Tozzi, a former Office of Management and Budget official who now lobbies for corporations on regulatory issues, agrees. "Every one of the program offices uses the information [they collect] in a different way. I'm not sure how much hardware per se will solve that problem."

Congress, meanwhile, will likely press the agency to describe exactly how the modernization fund will be used. Frank Cushing, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee in charge of the EPA's budget, said that although lawmakers might support what the agency wants to do, "as a general rule we're not real fond of agencies skimming money off the top to fund something that ought to be funded in a separate line."

The plan would work like this:

The EPA would build up the fund over three years with increasing contributions from each EPA program office. In fiscal 2003, and every year thereafter, the program offices would give about 9 percent of their IT budgets to the fund, for an annual pot estimated at $30 million.

When a program office wants to modernize a system, it would use its own money to plan the project and then apply for money from the central fund to build it. Projects that are selected would get a three-year grant.

As an incentive to keep their projects on schedule and within budget, program offices would have to pay for any cost overruns with their own money and, after three years, return unspent grant money to the central fund.

EPA chief information officer Al Pesachowitz said the plan would offer a "substantial carrot" to program offices to redesign systems according to agency IT standards because money from the fund would go only to projects that comply with these standards.

By building standard systems, EPA officials believe program offices will be able to break down barriers that prevent them from sharing data. Then, said Ruby Boyd, the EPA systems engineering team leader for REI, the agency will be able to offer more electronic reporting of information and improve public access to its vast data stores.

But John Chelen, executive director of the Unison Institute, which advocates for better public access to government data, said that to accomplish these goals, EPA officials must actively encourage program offices to collaborate. "There should be a way to sprinkle some money and expertise on program offices" to help align their priorities with agencywide objectives, he said.

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