Setting a course for e-government

"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

Al Gore.

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,

"whenever possible."

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;

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,

she said.

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,"

Balutis said.

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,

they said.

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

Transitioning to Performance-Based Government


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