The budget is just the start
If President Clinton's fiscal 2001 budget request — due for release today — is anything like his past budgets, spending on information technology
programs will receive a generous boost. Congress, for its part, will likely
pass bigger IT budgets all around.
This ritualistic increase, which has occurred with few exceptions in
the past few decades, should come as no surprise. IT has attained a budget
popularity that only a few other federal line items have enjoyed, such as
defense spending during the Cold War, health research and Social Security.
Like those programs, IT has been viewed as socially progressive and as a
way to promote American economic supremacy.
As a result, annual federal IT spending has reached nearly $35 billion;
more than $50 billion if off-the-book spending on IT by the intelligence
community is included.
But as the IT budget has skyrocketed, so have expectations of how IT
can improve the way government works — sometimes to unrealistic heights.
Just ask National Weather Service officials, whose new supercomputer last
month severely miscalculated the short-term forecast of a 12-inch snowstorm
in Washington, D.C.
That is why it is more important for agencies to tackle the tough IT
management problems that accompany this era of bigger budgets and rising
expectations. Creating IT inventories of hardware, software and information
is a good place to start. Making a sound, clear and practical IT security
policy is another priority. Finally, policy-makers need to balance efficiency
with individual privacy when tying together public databases and making
information more readily available.
Increasing IT spending is easy. The way agencies manage that spending
is the hard part. How these problems are addressed will determine the success
of federal IT programs as well as future budget requests. If agencies are
successful at solving these management problems, they will improve the way
IT works and pave the way for even bigger and more responsible budget increases.