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.

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