Setting a course for e-government
- By William Matthews
- Dec 10, 2000
"Information technology is like a big wave curled over government ready
to break," technology guru Stephen Goldsmith is fond of saying. The question
confronting the new president and his administration is whether the IT wave
will elevate the federal government to a higher level of service and efficiency — or swamp it.
Goldsmith, one of the founding fathers of electronic government and
a key IT adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, preaches that computers and
the Internet will enable government to save billions of dollars, dramatically
improve the delivery of services and ultimately change the relationship
between citizens and government.
But the new crew at the White House — and a Bush administration is likely
to include Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis — must overcome an
assortment of obstacles to make the ship float, not founder, on the rising
IT tide. Problems range from uncertain IT funding, to IT worker shortages,
to the lack of a coherent e-government plan, according to experts.
During an election with fights about Medicare and tax cuts, little was
said about electronic government. But as the public becomes more accustomed
to the convenience of e-commerce and the Internet, there is a mounting dissatisfaction
with the state of federal e-government.
"Increasingly, people expect to be able to interact with agencies and
get the same services online that they would be able to get in person,"
said Barry White, director of government performance projects at the Council
for Excellence in Government. For the most part, that's not possible at
the federal level.
"The new administration and the new Congress will be tested by rising
expectations of customers and taxpayers," White and others warned in a transition
report prepared for the incoming president.
The advent of a new administration has prompted an outpouring of e-government
recommendations from organizations and IT experts. Advice is being offered
by current and former government officials, academics and business leaders.
Their message is clear: The time to act on e-government is at hand,
and if the new administration responds to the challenge, the rewards for
getting it right could be enormous.
Improvements in government performance could be dramatic, said Robert
Atkinson, director of the Technology and New Economy Project at the Progressive
Policy Institute. "Done right, digital government promises to transform
Industrial Age big government into Knowledge Age smart government."
Atkinson argues that information and communication technologies make
it possible to organize a "New Economy government" in which federal agencies
operate to meet the needs of citizens. Today's bureaucracy operates chiefly
to meet the requirements of its agencies, he said.
The new administration "could accomplish a thorough top-to-bottom review
of the government and what it does and how it should do it in the digital
economy," said Atkinson, who was an e-government adviser to Vice President
But Atkinson is not betting that will happen, regardless of whether
Bush or Gore occupies the White House. "I do not see the next administration
as having e-government as a central focus."
Wanted: A Federal CIO
For e-government advocates, the sluggish pace of progress at the federal
level stands in frustrating contrast to energetic e-government activity
by states and localities. "The difference between the federal government
and the states is like night and day," said Janet Caldow, director of IBM
Corp.'s Institute for Electronic Government.
Maryland, for example, has mandated that 50 percent of its services
be online by 2002 and 80 percent by 2004, Caldow said. And the city of Los
Angeles is making similar moves to put services online. The federal government
is taking some steps in that direction as well. The Government Paperwork
Elimination Act, for example, sets an October 2003 date for agencies to
enable citizens to interact with the government electronically, but adds,
Arizona, the first state to permit vehicle registration renewals online,
calculates the cost of electronic registration renewals at $1.60 compared
to $7 for the paper process.
"I see the same kind of interest at the federal level, but I don't see
the same kind of execution," Caldow said. "How do you light a booster rocket
under the federal government? That's going to be a big question" during
the next administration.
The answer is obvious, say many e-government advocates: Appoint a governmentwide
chief information officer.
"There is a need for a national CIO or a secretary of technology," writes
a group of 140 current and former government officials in a report to the
incoming president and his transition team.
The group includes such IT and management luminaries as John Koskinen,
who headed the federal government's Year 2000 computer compliance effort
last year; Bill Piatt, former CIO at the General Services Administration
and head of the team that developed the federal Web portal FirstGov.gov;
and Joshua Gotbaum, executive associate director and controller at the Office
of Management and Budget.
Joining them are federal agency CIOs, senior-level IT managers and academics.
Their report, "Transitioning to Performance-based Government," stresses
the value of IT for improving the day-to-day management of government.
During his campaign for president, Bush promised to appoint a federal
CIO. Gore did not.
Many of the CIO advocates have called for a cabinet-level "IT czar"
who would have direct access to the president. That seems unlikely. Bush
proposed appointing a CIO stationed a step or two below the director of
OMB. Gore's Office of Electronic Government would also be a subsidiary of
That's not good enough, Atkinson said. What's needed is "a real CIO
[and not] just someone at OMB who has a title," he said.
The CIO's main responsibility should be to spur development of the next
generation of digital government, especially IT initiatives that cut across
agency boundaries, Atkinson said. E-government's brightest promise is to
improve services for citizens by breaking down the current structure of
government from being organized around agencies to being organized around
the functions government performs. That task "begs for top-level leadership,
vision, coordination and accountability," Atkinson said. A CIO buried in
OMB might not be able to get the job done.
Put IT High on the Agenda
Along with a federal CIO, "you need a national agenda on e-government,"
the group of 140 tells the president-elect. "Articulate a formal and clear
vision for electronic government" and set policies for "electronic governance,"
the group advises.
The e-government agenda "should not be narrowly defined in just citizen
services" but should address broad issues, such as economic competitiveness,
reducing the cost of doing business with the government, security, privacy
and bridging the digital divide, according to the group's report.
An IT czar alone is not enough, cautioned Patricia McGinnis, president
and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government.
The amount of e-government progress made during the next four years will
also depend on the degree of electronic literacy among the new president's
senior appointees, she said.
"Every cabinet secretary should be someone who will embrace e-government,"
said McGinnis, whose organization is preparing a "Blueprint for Electronic
Government" to guide the new administration. "We don't have to have people
in the cabinet and top management who are technology experts, but we want
people who agree that information technology is a strategic leadership tool
for changing government and making government better."
There are plenty of able candidates, McGinnis said. Governors and mayors
who have established e-government at the state and local levels are potential
nominees. So are executives who have run large organizations, businesses
or universities and have made IT an effective part of their business strategy,
A level below the secretaries sit the agency CIOs, and they have compiled
a list of recommendations for the new president.
Topping their roster: "Address the issue of the roles, responsibilities
and authority of the CIOs," said Alan Balutis, co-chairman of the E-Government
Committee of the federal CIO Council.
There are 54 CIOs of federal agencies. Some wield considerable influence
in their agencies, but many have little clout. Spelling out the role of
the CIOs more clearly — and giving them greater authority over IT spending
and policies — "is one of the key issues for the new administration to address,"
The group of 140 agrees. Federal CIOs need more power over their agencies'
IT infrastructure and IT budgets, they said. Despite being the technology
chiefs of their agencies, some CIOs control only 15 percent to 20 percent
of their agencies' IT spending.
Granting CIOs more budget authority would solve only part of the money
problem, Balutis said. The CIOs also need a reliable means of funding interagency
and innovative e-government projects. "What we do now is pass the hat"
and hope various agencies are willing to pitch in to support new programs.
"Nobody's happy with that. Everybody wants a change," said Balutis, who
heads the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program at the National
Institute of Standards and Technology.
The new administration should establish a fund for interagency IT initiatives
and seek appropriations for it from Congress, Balutis said. That and other
suggestions are being sent to the new administration by the CIO Council.
Use IT to Simplify Government
Emphasizing interagency IT programs has become a central tenet of e-government.
E-government advocates contend that delegating which agency performs
a service has little relevance. All that really matters is that the service
is performed well and is easy for the public to obtain. E-government's appeal
is that it can tie related services together, greatly improving access to
them regardless of which agency — or even which level of government — performs
them. That's the theory. In practice, however, dealing with the federal
government generally remains a complex and tedious process.
Consider international trade: More than 100 federal organizations make
the rules and control the permits required for importing and exporting.
Among them, they have "more than 2,000 different definitions for a set of
about 130 data elements that reflect the basic trade data requirements of
federal agencies," Atkinson said.
Why don't the trade agencies agree on a common set of information to
be supplied by trade permit applicants? And why not organize the information
so that it can be submitted once and shared by all the agencies that need
it? Information technology makes such a proposition relatively simple.
In the future that Atkinson envisions, citizens could log on to one
Web site and easily find the government services they are looking for. Agencies
would be interconnected electronically, thus enabling them to share information.
That means a business needing multiple environmental permits could fill
out one Web-based form and the information would be forwarded to all the
necessary local, state and federal environmental regulatory agencies, saving
time, money and frustration at all levels.
Similar streamlined procedures would be put in place for veterans seeking
benefits, students applying for loans and taxpayers filing returns.
"The goal of e-government should be desire on the part of citizens to
interact with their government because it is a productive, easy and painless
experience. This is a radical shift from most interactions today," according
to a 30-page transition plan by the Government Electronics and Information
Technology Association (GEIA), presented to the Republican and Democratic
presidential candidates in September.
GEIA urged the new administration to apply business practices to e-government.
Government should adopt a "customer-service focus" and provide citizens
with services "on a par with the best private-industry performers." For
example, e-government should make it possible for citizens to receive online
assistance from agencies "through "chat' or voice. E-mail is not sufficient,"
according to GEIA.
Creating such a government will require IT improvements, of course,
but it will also take a profound change in government culture, such as requiring
customer-service training for agency personnel, GEIA officials wrote.
Falling Further Behind the IT Curve
Caldow agreed that government culture must change, but she advocates
a more direct approach to stimulate e-government. "I think it's going to
take some mandates," she said. The new administration should decree "so
many services need to be online by such and such a date. If there are those
kinds of targets, I think we can move forward quickly."
Canada imposed such deadlines, and as a result, Canadian e-government
is substantially ahead of e-government in the United States, she said.
And it isn't just Canada. "Bulgaria is doing a better job than us,"
the group of 140 wrote. "In Bulgaria you can actually ask a question online
and get an answer" from a government official. And New Zealand, Australia
and the United Kingdom are all ahead of the United States in e-government,
During the next four years, as private-sector use of the Internet and
e-commerce grows, the public's expectations for more usable e-government
will surely increase, and the next administration must respond, according
to the group.
Goldsmith makes the point by comparing government to banking. "Not so
long ago, you'd rush to the bank on Friday afternoon to cash your check,"
he said. "If you didn't make it before 3 p.m., too bad, the bank closed
for the weekend." Today, with automated teller machines, banks are open
24 hours a day, and the cost to the bank of serving each customer has dropped
from nearly $3 to about 27 cents.
"The newly empowered customer is starting to wonder why government is
often so dysfunctional and sloth-like in comparison," he said.
A presidential to-do list
E-government experts have urged the new president to make e-government
a top priority. Here are the recommendations they say are most pressing:
1. Name a federal chief information officer or technology secretary.
2. Develop a national e-government agenda.
3. Give agency CIOs more authority over agency policies and budget.
4. Make IT savvy a job requirement for cabinet members.
5. Create a fund to finance interagency IT initiatives.
6. Use IT to organize the government around functions, not agencies.
On the bubble
When the new administration is sworn in on Jan. 20, some of the top
information technology officials appointed by President Clinton will bow
out to make way for the next wave of political appointees. Preparing to
pack up are:
Robert Bubniak, acting chief information officer, Department of Veterans
John Callahan, chief information and financial officer, Department of
Health and Human Services
Leah Daughtry, acting assistant secretary of Labor for administration
and management, Labor Department
Joseph Leo, CIO, Agriculture Department
Edwin Levine, interim CIO, Environmental Protection Agency
George Molaski, CIO, Transportation Department
Art Money, CIO, Defense Department
E-Government: The Promise and the Challenges http://www.geia.org/image5-pg.htm
Transitioning to Performance-Based Government www.rppi.org/t2g.html