In his wake
- By Diane Frank
- Feb 04, 2001
Checking the status of Social Security benefits, filing tax returns, finding federal forms for nearly every occasion — conducting business with the government via the Web just keeps getting easier. That e-government explosion is something President Clinton took credit for as he left office last month, claiming it as part of his information technology legacy.
Federal IT experts, however, say no single policy or program defines Clinton as the IT president. Rather, his administration harnessed IT and the World Wide Web to change not only how the federal government conducts business but also what citizens expect from it.
Some of that success simply was timing. When Clinton entered the White House in 1993, the Internet was just making its way out of academia and the Defense Department and — as Web browsers made Internet access easier — into the mainstream.
But Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division, credits the administration for not sitting back and watching the technology pass it by.
"You can't say, "Were they good or were they lucky?' I think that it's both," she said. "The opportunities were there, and they supported those opportunities." As industry began to offer information and services on the Web, the administration realized that government had no choice but to follow suit.
""Inevitable' is too strong a word, but it was time," said Marty Wagner, associate administrator for the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration. "It was only a matter of time before the government started picking up [the Internet] way of doing business."
Although many initiatives began under the Clinton administration, there's work left to do on e-government — most notably in securing and protecting information.
Experts agree that the Bush administration will have to tackle security and privacy issues. "Privacy, security, cultural change — it is all linked," said Don Arnold, vice chairman of e-government at the Industry Advisory Council. "The culture change is not just in government but in how citizens see government."
Rules of the Road
Many of the changes may have happened without legislation, but the IT-friendly policies didn't hurt.
Between 1993 and 1996, Clinton signed the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA), the Federal Acquisition Reform Act and the Information Technology Management Reform Act. (The last two were later combined into the Clinger-Cohen Act.) And then in 1998 came the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.
These acts outlined government management practices already used by commercial organizations, making official actions that agencies had been doing for years. "It is the idea that I could do something that I didn't used to be able to do," Wagner said.
Until regulations such as GPRA, Clinger-Cohen and FASA, many federal IT systems and programs sucked up millions or billions of dollars before Congress demanded an explanation. Now agencies often will start with small pilots and accept the possibility of failure, but also give the program the chance to become larger as it proves itself.
"There's been sort of a change in mindset. In the past, you turned the crank on the process and the process was God," Wagner said. "Now it is more 'try it, adjust and then try it again.'"
And what started out as relying on the commercial world for products and services, said George Molaski, has led to aggressive outsourcing now that "IT is no longer a core competency of government." Molaski was Transportation Department CIO from 1999 to 2001.
It's up to the Bush administration, said Roger Baker, CIO at the Commerce Department, to support, not crush, agencies when they push for revolutionary change.
For example, Congress cut off the Social Security Administration's program to make benefits information available to citizens online in 1997 because the agency had not completely addressed privacy and security concerns — problems that were later addressed. The Bush administration will have to show that "you don't bury people when they take a risk," Baker said. Groups like the National Performance Review — later the National Partnership for Reinventing Government — changed the way government employees think and federal agencies function. Put in place by former Vice President Al Gore in 1993, NPR closed shop in January.
By then it had served its purpose, said Arnold, by questioning the "fundamental practices of government.
"We changed the culture a little bit. No ease of acquisition of access to computers has the same impact as changing the way people think and do things," he said.
The CIO Council, unlike NPR, survived Inauguration Day. Formed by an executive order in 1996, the council pooled the IT resources of agencies and their CIOs, said Baker, who serves as co-chairman of the council's Security, Privacy and Critical Infrastructure Committee. "The key role the council has played is raising agencies above their individual fiefdoms," he said.
The result is projects such as FirstGov, the central Web portal for citizens to access federal programs, and the Federal Information Technology Security Assessment Framework, which agencies can use to measure their security practices. The future of such cross-agency initiatives may lie with the first federal CIO, a position Bush supports but has yet to fill. A much less egalitarian approach was the "budget hammer" the Office of Management and Budget wielded in 1998. John Spotila, former administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said that's when OMB began withholding funds for information systems that did not follow the capital planning guidance laid out in an October 1996 memorandum known as Raines Rules.
"It is the threat of withholding money that gets everyone's attention," he said.
Starting that year with the fiscal 2001 budgets, OMB turned down several IT system requests that didn't follow the rules. That got the attention of officials outside the CIO's office, and "it had an enormous impact in changing the approach to capital planning," Spotila said.
E-gov and President Bush
Despite early speculation that Bush would sweep away IT initiatives, officials agree there is no stopping e-government.
"We're really just at the beginning, and there's so much more that can be done and should be done," said Molaski, who served as co-chairman of the CIO Council's E-Government Committee from its creation in 1999 to 2001.
The administration is already making plans for the FirstGov portal, including putting a link on the White House Web site. ""How can I use this to make my administration more successful?' That's how they're looking at it," said a federal official who is working on the project. "This is a bipartisan effort. Both Republicans and Democrats want the government to be electronic."
Agency compliance with GPEA also is under way, with the first set of agency plans already submitted to OMB. However, meeting the October 2003 deadline, Spotila said, will require political and fiscal support from the new administration and Capitol Hill. Agencies' planned systems to move paper-based programs to the Internet must get funding, and unnecessary mandates cannot be added just for the sake of it, he said.
For this and other regulations, new OMB Director Mitchell Daniels needs to make it clear that existing policies will be enforced. And, Spotila cautioned, "until the new leadership sends a clear signal, there is a temptation to let it slip."