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.

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