Forman: Too much spent on IT

At $44 billion a year, the federal government may be spending too much on information technology, the Bush administration's new IT chief contends.

Federal agencies are wasting money on "fad portals," multiple search engines and efforts to develop "government unique" versions of Extensible Markup Language for their Web sites, said Mark Forman on his third day on the job as associate director for IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget. Agencies are building "islands of automation" but not linking them into an effective electronic government, Forman said in an address to an e-government conference on Capitol Hill.

He said his goal is to "unify and simplify" agency IT endeavors. He began June 25 as the administration's senior official overseeing the government's use of IT.

Overall, agencies are "spending too much on IT—$44 billion is too much," he told an audience dominated by IT vendors. Later, an OMB spokesman said it's not yet clear if $44 billion is too much—that's what Forman is trying to determine.

However, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) made it clear he thinks federal agencies are overspending on IT. Agencies waste "hundreds of millions of dollars a year."

For example, Goodlatte said, the Agriculture Department, which spends more than $1 billion annually on IT, has assembled a conglomeration of computer systems within its 27 subagencies that are incompatible and cannot communicate with one another.

Goodlatte said department heads and technology chiefs jealously protect their bureaucratic territories and resist cooperative or collaborative decision-making. Even the secretary cannot force subagencies to buy compatible systems, he said.

In addition to guarding their turf, Goodlatte said some agencies have begun to invade territory traditionally reserved for the private sector.

The Postal Service has ventured into e-businesses, such as online bill paying, that compete directly with private companies, he said. The Internal Revenue Service offers tax advice that comes close to competing with commercial tax preparers, and the General Services Administration serves as an online reseller to government agencies.

"I don't believe the federal government should be going this far in competing with the private sector," Goodlatte said.

Forman cited portals and search engines as examples of agency waste and duplication. The federal government operates "a mondo search engine" at its portal, FirstGov, yet many agencies are busy setting up their own portals. Such "fad buying" must stop, Forman said.

While hinting at IT funding cuts, Forman said e-government must improve. "It's not sufficient to make it easier to collect someone's money," he said, noting that the first capabilities governments usually put online are to collect taxes and fees.

E-government should also be used to "reduce the burden on business," he said. By reducing paperwork for businesses and speeding transactions, e-government can stimulate economic growth.

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