'Freewheeling IT spending' over

The Bush administration has placed performance-based government at the top of its agenda, and that's likely to make it harder for federal managers to justify spending on information technology, says public policy analyst Carl DeMaio.

"The days of free-wheeling IT spending are over," said DeMaio, an analyst for the Reason Public Policy Institute. If administration rhetoric becomes budgeting practice, IT program managers are likely to have to prove that their programs contribute to their agencies' performance before their programs will be funded, DeMaio told government managers and IT vendors at the E-Gov 2001 conference in Washington, D.C., July 10.

That would represent a substantial change for federal IT managers, who grew accustomed to "very healthy increases" in annual IT spending during the Clinton administration, he said. But while spending ballooned, citizen satisfaction with the federal government's online offerings did not, DeMaio said. Polls repeatedly have shown that the public has "rising expectations" for electronic government that are not being met despite the $44 billion a year that the federal government spends on IT.

To a large degree, citizens' expectations are driven by commercial Web sites that are more sophisticated and far more consumer-oriented than most federal Web sites. "People want personalized, one-stop shopping" that federal Web sites just cannot deliver, he said.

When the 2002 budget was being drafted, IT spending received greater scrutiny than it had before, and it will receive even more scrutiny when the 2003 spending plan is crafted, DeMaio predicted.

Being able to show that a program was completed on time and within budget — traditional benchmarks of government program success—may no longer be good enough, DeMaio said. Programs will have to demonstrate that they make significant contributions to agency performance, he said.

There is danger that the Bush administration's emphasis on performance and cost savings will go too far, said Robert Atkinson, an e-government expert for the Democrat-leaning Progressive Policy Institute. For agencies whose mission is helping people, it may be difficult to quantify how much IT is contributing to agency program results, he said. Cutting off funding for those IT programs could kill initiatives that would improve agency performance.

Atkinson said the Bush administration could take an important step toward improving e-government by putting a federal chief information officer in charge of it—a step candidate Bush said he would take, but one President Bush has not acted upon.

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