E-gov bill draws doubters

Sen. Joe Lieberman's sweeping blueprint for building an electronic government provoked skepticism from Senate Republicans and opposition from the Bush administration during its initial hearing July 11.

Lieberman (D-Conn.) said his E-Government Act of 2001 would harness information technology to make the federal government better deliver services to citizens, improve accountability and cut costs. But Republicans said the bill might also increase costs and make it easier for criminals to defraud federal agencies.

Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, unveiled on May 1 his ambitious plan for e-government to be headed by a federal chief information officer and a new Office of Information Policy.

"A lack of concentrated, high-level leadership" has been a major impediment for developing a smooth-running e-government, Lieberman said. A federal CIO would provide a much-needed, governmentwide perspective on e-government, Lieberman said. His bill would make the CIO a deputy to the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The e-government bill would provide the CIO with a $200 million yearly technology fund to be used to pay for innovative, multiagency e-government projects.

The Bush administration has proposed a $20 million technology fund for 2002 and opposes Lieberman's plan for a CIO, contending that CIO duties should be assigned to the OMB's deputy director for management. That person would be assisted by a newly created associate director for IT and e-government.

Sean O'Keefe, OMB deputy director, said the Bush administration hopes to use IT to improve government services and reduce costs, but "this administration believes e-government must be integrated with the larger picture of management reform."

The administration contends that government can be improved by requiring agencies and programs to meet performance standards.

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) warned that putting more government services online might increase opportunities for fraud. The Education Department, for example, has automated the process for applying for student loans so it is now possible to apply and receive loans online. But the department has not solved financial management problems that make the loan program highly vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse, Thompson said.

The student loan program "has spawned a cottage industry" of defrauding the government, he said. "Are we making it so criminals can rob the Department of Education more efficiently?"

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) worried that rushing into the electronic world too quickly could double the cost of government. The Library of Congress, for example, now must operate both a paper library and an electronic one, he said. Similarly, the IRS is pushing people to file taxes electronically, but must also continue to process tax returns on paper because many people do not want to file electronically, Stevens said. "Are we pushing too fast?" he asked.

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