- By William Matthews
- Apr 30, 2001
Perched on the arm of an overstuffed chair in his office, Sen. Joe Lieberman demonstrates how he thumbs messages into his palm-sized BlackBerry computer.
"At home at night, when a thought comes into my head," he says, he grabs the BlackBerry and, typing on the tiny keyboard with his thumbs, e-mails a message that his chief of staff will find at the office first thing in the morning.
He uses the tiny device to communicate with his family, too — not his wife and children still at home, but with his adult children and his sister, whom he sees less and less often because of the increasing demands on his time as a national spokesman for the Democrats.
"You know who got me to use this thing? Al Gore, during the campaign," Lieberman says. "I still find it amazing," he beams with the luminous grin made famous during his run last year for the vice presidency.
If only dealing with the government was so easy. But Lieberman believes that it can be, if the government would adopt some of "the extraordinary new opportunities for communication" made possible by information technology.
The 59-year-old Connecticut Democrat intends to push the government in that direction with his E-Government Act of 2001, which was provided to Federal Computer Week. In the 90-page bill that he plans to introduce May 1, Lieberman tackles the mechanics — from monumental to minuscule — of e-government in the most comprehensive piece of legislation on e-government to date.
He proposes imaginative new programs, including an "Online National Library" open to anyone with Internet access and a "federal information technology training center" to recruit and train government IT workers.
He delves into details as specific as requiring an online staff directory of federal employees and promoting the use of compatible electronic signatures by federal agencies, and as sweeping as creating a single portal that offers access to all government agencies and services.
Most important, perhaps, Lieberman seeks to introduce organization, discipline and structure — so far missing in e-government. "As you watch information technology creating new businesses and transforming old businesses," he says, "it seems to me the government is lagging behind."
Another Call for a Federal CIO
Lieberman would begin by putting someone in charge.
His bill would appoint a federal chief information officer to head a new Office of Information Technology. Located within the Office of Management and Budget, the CIO would report to the OMB director and oversee a $200-million-a-year technology fund to be spent on multi-agency IT projects.
"Decisive, top-level leadership is required for the government to truly harness information technology," Lieberman wrote in a draft of his bill. Without a CIO, the pace and progress toward e-government has been uneven, especially in areas that require cooperation among agencies, he said.
At the hub of e-government, Lieberman envisions "a centralized online portal." Designed "from the citizen's perspective," the portal would arrange government services by function rather than by the agencies that administer them. The idea is to make government information and assistance easier to obtain.
"This is an important part of what we'd like to see happen," Lieberman said. "It's quite doable," but given the sprawling vastness of the federal bureaucracy, "it's not going to be easy."
The portal is intended to let citizens interact easily with federal agencies, even communicate online with agency em-ployees. "Ideally, my hope is that you can create a different relationship" between the people and the government, he said.
E-government would be open around the clock. Much of it would be automated. Even with complex matters that require personal assistance, responses could be faster online or by e-mail than they are today.
A senator since 1988, Lieberman is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which focuses on "the meat and potatoes of government — how can you make it work better," Lieberman said.
Usually, that means droning inquiries into how well agencies are performing and occasional investigations of alleged government waste and fraud. But, the E-Government Act is an attempt "to be affirmative about what can make government more effective," he said.
Lieberman can be as arcane as the next senator, however.
He devotes a section of his bill to geospatial information systems, which he said collect data in abundance, but keep it largely inaccessible. Geospatial information combines detailed area maps with databases, making it possible to visually depict census demographics, crime trends or population movement. The results are valuable for land-use planning, product marketing, even disaster management.
For now, however, much of the government's geospatial information is scattered among agencies and stored in incompatible formats. Lieberman's bill instructs the federal CIO to develop protocols and software that permit widespread, low-cost use of geospatial data.
Piece by piece, Lieberman's bill begins to bring rational structure to e-government.
"It's a very good bill," said Patrice McDermott, an analyst for the public policy organization OMB Watch. If passed, the Lieberman bill could lay the groundwork for vast improvements in the public's ability to connect to and interact with the government, she said.
One provision, for example, would require federal courts, for the first time, to establish Web sites and post information useful to the public. Another would set guidelines for information that must appear on federal agency Web pages.
Industry should like the bill, McDermott said. It includes an Integrated Reporting Program, designed to reduce duplicate information collection. Much of the paperwork required for filing separate reports to regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department could be eliminated, she said.
Having companies file information to a central database could also make it easier for the public to monitor companies, and for companies to monitor one another, McDermott said. The bill also would create a searchable Web site for access to data obtained through federally funded research and development.
"There's a lot of mom and apple pie" in the Lieberman bill, McDermott said. But that doesn't mean it will slide easily through the Senate and then the House. Resistance has already started to the bill's preeminent provision — the CIO.
The Bush administration has already bluntly stated that it does not want a Lieberman-style CIO. And the administration is willing to spend only a fraction of the amount Lieberman proposes for his e-government fund.
OMB Deputy Director Sean O'Keefe told the Congressional Internet Caucus in March that the administration opposes appointing a strong federal CIO for fear of making agency officials think they are absolved of responsibility for the success or failure of their IT projects. Instead, Bush would assign CIO duties to the OMB's deputy director for management — essentially maintaining the status quo.
But the status quo is the problem, Lieberman argues.
"I just think that if we don't create a separate person with some autonomy to oversee the government's work here, we're not going to go as far and as fast as we should," Lieberman said. "I think if you add [CIO duties] on as another function of an existing deputy at OMB, you're not going to get much out of it."
As a deputy director within OMB, Lieberman's CIO would be less lofty than the technology "czars" favored by some lawmakers, including some Republicans, who have called for a Cabinet-level CIO. Lieberman's plan for a $200 million-a-year technology fund compares with the Bush administration's proposal to spend $20 million to stimulate e-government in 2002. In the longer term, Bush's budget blueprint calls for spending $100 million across three years.
"I think $200 million a year is the bare minimum," said Robert Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute. "We proposed $500 million." Atkinson wrote one of the definitive studies on e-government, "Digital Government: The Next Step to Re-engineering the Federal Government."
"The Progressive Policy Institute made a pretty reasonable case for much higher spending," Lieberman said. But he is willing to discuss alternatives with President Bush.
But even Atkinson's number is small, said Alan Balutis, former director of the Advanced Technology Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Great Britain spends $1.5 billion a year" to manage its e-government, which is much smaller and less complex than ours, he said.
The Bush e-government plan is little more than symbolic, Atkinson said. But symbolism can become reality in politics.
"There is not likely to be a lot of Republican support for the bill as long as the White House objects to it," McDermott said.
Lieberman said in March he hoped to sign up Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) as a co-sponsor for the e-government bill. Support from Thompson, who is chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, could give Lieberman's bill valuable momentum. But so far he has demurred, reluctant to bicker with Bush over the CIO.
"I'm still hopeful," Lieberman said. "We've had extensive discussions with his staff, and I hope there can be a meeting of the minds here. This is certainly not a partisan issue — it may be more classically an executive/legislative difference rather than a political difference. I hope we can find a common ground."
Thompson has indicated he won't oppose committee hearings on the bill, which Lieberman sees as a positive sign.
The administration's opposition and Senate Republicans' reluctance to break with the administration are not a surprise, said an aide to Lieberman. "The bill has so many provisions, we expected some concerns." Lieberman "is open to recommendations for changes."
Except for the CIO and the e-government fund, Bush seems to agree with Lieberman on the potential benefits of e-government. In his February budget blueprint, the president touted the Internet's potential for creating a "truly citizen- centered" government.
The blueprint envisions an e-government in which "agencies will conduct transactions with the public along secure Web- enabled systems." The administration anticipates the development of government Internet portals that "give citizens the ability to go online and interact with their government — and with their state and local governments — around citizen preferences and not agency boundaries." The Internet, Bush said, "promises to shift power from a handful of leaders in Washington to individual citizens."
Like Lieberman, Bush envisions citizens interacting with government through user-friendly portals that "consolidate similar functions around the needs of citizens and businesses."
A key difference between the two is the degree of detail.
Lieberman's is "a very process-oriented bill," McDermott said. For example, the senator would require agencies to develop an inventory of their Web sites down to the directory and subdirectory levels, she said.
The bill would create an advisory board to develop standards for cataloging and preserving government information, then issue regulations for making government-held information more available to the public.
"We don't currently have a system for cataloging information so the government can keep track of it and people can know what we have," an aide to Lieberman explained. There are no standards for preserving Web sites, so when they are taken off the Internet, they simply disappear and some or all of the information they contained vanishes.
"One of the primary intents of the Lieberman bill is to make the government and government information more accessible, more usable and more findable," McDermott said. For example, agency Web sites might be required to include relevant information from the Federal Register, providing easier access to public information. It also would mandate that agencies conduct "privacy impact assessments" before procuring new computer systems or undertaking new collections of personally identifiable information.
Lieberman also wants agency privacy notices to be translated into machine-readable language that Internet browsers can scan and interpret for their users.
Initiatives like those "begin to put in place the sort of groundwork needed to make e-government happen," McDermott said. "This is an important bill. I would hope it would pass this year or certainly this Congress."
On the eve of introducing it, Lieberman is wary of predicting the E-Government Act's fate. "This place has a life and rhythm all its own, so you never know," he said. "But the information technology world is moving very quickly, and the longer the federal government waits to intensify its involvement in the new IT world, the harder it will be." n Rules for e-government
Sen. Joe Lieberman's efforts include:
n E-Government Project. In May 2000, Lieberman and Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) created a Web site that invited citizens to comment on e-government issues. Ideas and opinions sent to the site helped shape the E-Government Act of 2001. Lieberman described it as "an online experiment in interactive legislation."
n Can Spam Act. Declaring that "spam is a tremendous nuisance," in May 2000 Lieberman introduced legislation to curtail electronic junk mail. His bill required e-mail messages to contain valid return addresses, required spam senders to honor opt-out requests, prohibited misleading routing information and authorized the Federal Trade Commission to pursue violators.
n V-chip. Lieberman was a lead sponsor of legislation requiring V-chips in all new television sets so parents can block violent and offensive programs. Lieberman has been a vocal critic of the entertainment industry for producing violent and sexually oriented programming.
n Government Information Security Act. Introduced in 1999 with Thompson, the legislation required federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget to pay more attention to government security systems. The bill passed in 2000.
n Adult-rated products. Lieberman said in January he plans to introduce legislation giving the FTC authority to take action against companies that continue to sell violent and sexually oriented products, including computer and video games, to children.