A vision for e-government
If we were to be realistic, a forthcoming proposal to give nearly every
federal employee a computer and Internet access does not stand much of a
chance in Congress. Bold proposals rarely fare well during an election year,
especially when big money is involved.
But this idea, as ambitious as it is, deserves more than a once-over.
The Federal Workforce Digital Access Act, scheduled to be unveiled today
by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), addresses vital questions about the prospects
for a true digital government and about the livelihood of federal workers.
Cummings' proposal is based on a simple premise: To build an e-government,
you need "e-workers." Ideally, putting technology into the hands of up to
1.8 million federal workers, for personal use, will translate into a more
IT-savvy work force.
Clearly, the bill is fraught with pitfalls. Congress likely will balk
at the price tag, which will be mind-boggling no matter what deals are cut
with vendors. And, with many employees tapping into agency databases, agencies
will worry about how to secure data and how to handle the likely deluge
of requests for technical support.
These are legitimate and substantial concerns. But the far-reaching benefits
of the project more than justify the difficulties involved. For starters,
Cummings' premise is dead-on: Federal workers familiar with technology will
be better able to propose new applications. The Navy understands that and
plans to ask Congress for $20 million to outfit its sailors with handheld
wireless devices starting in fiscal 2002.
Because the government employs people from all walks of life, such projects
can play a part in bridging the digital divide. The federal government,
which frequently acts as a model employer, also has an opportunity to set
a bold example for the private sector, as have Ford Motor Co., Intel Corp.
and Delta Air Lines, which give computers to their workers.
Still, it is difficult to imagine a successful outcome for Cummings' proposal.
The surest way to achieve the goal may be agency by agency, not in one fell
swoop. Either way, we hope the vision, once expressed, escapes the likely
fate of this bill and takes on a life of its own.