Government Issue

Congress and some agencies are considering a bold plan to bring the concept of a digital government one step closer to fruition: Give each federal worker a computer.

The most recent effort to put a computer in nearly every federal worker's hands will be showcased today. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) plans to introduce the Federal Workforce Digital Access Act, which would provide a free computer and Internet access to up to 1.8 million federal employees who complete at least a year of service.

The bill reflects similar initiatives planned by the Navy and the Army and programs launched earlier this year by Ford Motor Co., Intel Corp. and Delta Air Lines [see related story].

Those supporting the general idea of giving federal workers a computer for personal use say it's a necessary move if government is to become truly digital. Today's federal workers will be the driving force behind the electronic government of the future, but it will be impossible to have e-government without a well-trained core of e-workers, according to architects of the proposal.

The bill was designed to keep the federal work force on the cutting edge of the information revolution. "One of the things I realized after I got here is that anyone who was not competent with regard to computers and the Internet couldn't get a job in my office," said Cummings, the ranking minority member on the Government Reform Committee's Civil Service subcommittee. "So many transactions are taking place with computers, and it was very clear to me that we must have a work force that is keeping up with the rest of society."

In general, information technology experts say, giving federal employees a computer has merit. The program would make the government a model employer and prepare the work force to deliver services electronically. However, important details such as funding, technical support, information security and the question of ownership would need to be resolved if the program has any chance of succeeding.

A Digital Access Benefit

Agencies would use the "digital access benefit," as the bill refers to it, as a way to attract a new generation of workers to government service and create a digital-ready work force with easy access to personal information stored on agency databases. Having a personal computer also could reduce dependence on printing and mailing through using electronic communications and by telecommuting.

"People coming into the federal government will have the opportunity to have a computer to learn and, at the same time, will be able to earn a living and make themselves more valuable," Cummings said, adding that the program would also boost employee moral.

The bill would also help increase worker productivity and bridge the digital divide, the gap between the technology haves and have-nots, Cummings said. "I think it will do a lot for generations yet unborn," he said. "How can you prepare a work force if they've never touched a computer?"

A draft copy of the bill, obtained by Federal Computer Week, places the General Services Administration in charge of negotiating contracts with PC manufacturers to provide the computers. The bill gives the Office of Personnel Management general oversight of the program. Neither agency would comment until the bill is released.

Beth Moten, legislative director at the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union likes the idea of giving this type of benefit to employees, but she said safeguards must be put in place to guard against potential abuse of the program, such as making employees work more for the same amount of pay.

"We don't want it to be a reason for government to require employees to work at all hours when they're supposed to be at home with their families," Moten said.

The Funding Hurdle

Funding the program is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome, according to Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department. "I don't think anyone would rail against the idea of having a work force that is technically literate," Hobbs said. "But when you think about the mechanics of how it gets done, it gets more complicated."

Congress would be expected to pass a supplemental funding bill for the program, and Cummings said he anticipates vendors to offer significant discounts based on the high volume of business they would get from selling 1.8 million PCs or laptops. Ford and Delta, for example, negotiated with PeoplePC Inc. to provide a package that includes a computer, printer, Internet service and user support for $24.95 per month per person for three years, or $800. That would cost the government more than $1.4 billion annually.

The cost, however, doesn't worry some government watchdog groups, such as OMB Watch. Patrice McDermott, a policy analyst with OMB Watch, said a program to give federal employees computers would be "an incredible investment in our federal work force."

Giving laptops to federal workers would help bridge the IT gap that exists between the haves and have-nots in the country and would have "an important seeding effect in a lot of communities," McDermott said. Not everyone working for the federal government is in the middle- or high- income socioeconomic stratum, she said. Many are working poor who have so far missed out on the IT boom.

"My first reaction is, we have so many needs to meet, is this the first thing we should do?" said Fred Thompson, program manager for the Information Technology Workforce Improvement Program at the Treasury Department. "But I think it sends a positive message to people if Congress were to do it. It tells you you're a value, and we're going to trust you with a valuable asset. It indicates that all workers are information technology workers, and all workers use these tools to do their work."

The program also sends a message that employees need to spend more time on their own development, Thompson added. "It sends a message that [says], "We'll give you the tools and the capability, but we expect you to spend some time on it.'"

Alan Balutis, deputy CIO at the Commerce Department, said the program should be thought of in the bigger context of e-government. "The notion of giving people laptop and Internet access is something that would be worthwhile exploring, especially given private-sector experience [with] rapid paybacks. But it needs to be done in conjunction with other initiatives to deliver services online," he said. "Without that environment, it doesn't make sense to proceed [with] it if it were some standalone [program]."

The digital access benefit package would include training, connections and a warranty, but upgrades would be done at the employee's request and expense, according to a draft of the bill. The legislation also would establish a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week toll-free number to answer employee support questions.

Stressed-Out Technical Support

The program could significantly add to the workload of already stressed-out help desks, said Daryl Covey, hot line manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's NEXRAD Support Facility. Agencies would have to address property issues, such as computer tracking, accounting and ownership. They would have to ensure that an adequate number of user ports, security and high-speed access are provided for users to dial in from home, he added.

Still, vendors say they could step in to help. Mark Barden, vice president of marketing at PeoplePC, said the company would be interested in offering its services if the bill passed and if its existing relationships with Compaq Computer Corp., Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. would translate well in the government.

"We have a system in place to accommodate these kinds of giant deals," Barden said.

PeoplePC is providing computers to 350,000 Ford employees worldwide and 72,000 Delta employees. Ford is using HP machines for its program because of an existing relationship it had with the computer maker. "We should have Ford completed by early 2001, basically in a year, and we expect to be able to ramp up from there," he said.

Barden said PeoplePC would accept bids from all of its hardware, software, Internet service providers and maintenance providers if it were awarded the federal contract and would tailor the program to the specific needs of the individual agencies and departments.

Other vendors are ready to sign on as well. "The potential of the deal is tremendous because the volume is so significant," said Craig Marking, product marketing manager for notebooks at Toshiba. "A mobile platform for connecting through the Internet is transforming how people live and work. This will help bring the government into the [area] where much of mainstream corporate America already is."

Toshiba already has the infrastructure in place to provide maintenance and help-desk features for the more than 1 million laptops it sells annually, Marking said.

"We have an "800' number for technical support and a number of reselling partners that would be focus on government support for those units," he said. "I don't think it would put a significant strain on our existing infrastructure."

Toshiba next week plans to launch a new line of satellite notebooks that, when connected to the Internet, will automatically check the company's Web site for available software drivers or other upgrades. If upgrades are available, users will receive a message alerting them of the opportunity to upgrade. "It's designed specifically for individuals like these without an IT support staff," Marking said.

Intel Corp. last month announced a Home PC program that will supply each of its employees with a computer, Internet access and services free of charge. The company's more than 70,000 employees will receive a baseline PC configuration with a Pentium III processor, unlimited Internet access, a printer, keyboard, mouse, monitor, company camera pack, software, technical support and their choice of one Intel Play product.

Intel's program may serve as a model for a federal program because government IT buying habits tend to mirror large private-sector companies, said Intel spokesman Seth Walker.

Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said the bill would be a great opportunity for his group's member companies, and one that they would almost assuredly support.

"Any time your potential market increases by 2 million or so customers, you're a happy camper," Allen said. "I'm sure our members would be interested in working on some innovative solutions to make that happen."

Allen said the contract negotiation process would be critical in addressing the myriad issues that arise when contemplating an initiative of this size and scope. Support, management, security and other peripherals would have to be hashed out in the contract, but he said leasing and software upgrade options definitely should be included.

Allen said the laptops would give federal employees the opportunity to do their less serious and intense work out of the office, leaving them more time to be productive on the job. "Who among us doesn't take their laptop and do some work in other places besides the office?" he noted.

Bryant Jordan contributed to this article.

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