Cash for a real investment

In his budget for 2002, President Bush proposes a $10 million "e-government fund," largely for innovative interagency projects. He also proposes making government more citizen-centered, calls for a government that empowers states, cities and citizens to make decisions, and ensures results through accountability.

This all sounds terrific, but as always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

One immediate candidate for this electronic government fund is support for enhancing a critical standard for records management applications (RMAs).

Since April 1997, Defense Department agencies can acquire only electronic records management software that is certified to comply with the specifications outlined in an RMA standard developed by DOD—5015.2-STD. Testing facilities at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., have been providing the certification of RMA software.

Although this standard was developed for DOD electronic records management purposes, other agencies use it as the baseline requirement for managing records. The National Archives and Records Administration officially endorsed the use of 5015.2-STD for use by other agencies in November 1998. The Association of Records Managers and Administrators International is pursuing an enhanced 5015.2-STD as an industry standard. And Australia has proposed adopting similar specifications for records management.

For this standard to fully meet the requirements of all governments, it needs to be updated regularly and improved. A recent revision includes an enhancement for classification markings. But enhancements for interoperability and usability, for digital e-signature preservation and continued authentication, and for "tagging" information that, for example, falls under a Freedom of Information Act exemption or under Privacy Act protection—all of these need to occur.

The estimated bill for those upgrades is a pittance—less than $700,000. To date, developing the standard and testing and certifying the software have been done entirely at DOD's expense. The Pentagon is committed to paying 40 percent of the cost of the needed enhancements, plus continuing full funding of the Fort Huachuca test lab. But no support has been identified for the remainder.

For less than $400,000, the federal government could leverage the work already undertaken to successfully make government not only more efficient but also more accountable. The potential return on investment is much greater.

The public cannot hold government accountable if the government's electronic records are in disarray. The e-government fund has the potential to advance the promises of technology, instead of the challenges it has created to date—such as making records less organized and thus less likely to be tracked for FOIA requests.

The Clinton administration touted the promises of "e-government," but the government has been negligent in managing electronic information. Here's a great opportunity for this administration to put the money where its mouth is.

McDermott is an information security analyst with OMB Watch, a government watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

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