What’s e-government? How do we do it?

What’s e-government? How do we do it?

The Association for Federal IRM and Government Computer News recently conducted a roundtable to explore the status of electronic government and where agencies need to go next for e-government transformation. The discussion, moderated by GCN editorial director Thomas R. Temin, took place at the City Club in Washington.

Participants were Mayi Canales, acting deputy chief information officer at the Treasury Department; Dan Chenok, chief of the Information Policy Branch at the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Regulatory Affairs; Ira Hobbs, acting CIO of the Agriculture Department; Kevin Landy, counsel to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee; Dave McClure, director for information and technology management at the General Accounting Office; Margaret Myers, acting deputy CIO at the Defense Department; Suzanne Peck, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia; Paul Wohlleben, partner in the global government group of Grant Thornton LLP of Chicago; and Melissa Wojciak, staff director for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy.

TEMIN: Let’s start with a question: What is your definition of electronic government and what should the goals of e-government be?

HOBBS: Well, at its most basic, e-government is about sharing information, but sharing it in a different way, where we’re utilizing technology to make sure that people are able to get it, able to use it. And it must be focused around providing a service to users.

Participants in the AFFIRM/GCN e-government roundtable discuss technical, cultural and political changes that will be needed for agencies to implement e-government.
So e-government is not new to us. It’s a different way of allowing citizens to let us know in real time what it is that they are concerned about.

MCCLURE: In its simplest form, e-government is the use of technology, largely through the Internet, to provide access to information and services to citizens, businesses, employees and other governments.

Largely we’re focusing on access and dissemination, and are moving heavily toward transactional activities.

WOJCIAK: We’re looking at what e-government means and at government-to-government transactions and agency-to-agency transactions—creating greater efficiencies across the state, local and federal levels.

CANALES: I think e-government makes government available when citizens want it—in other words, at night and at home. They don’t have to take time off from work, especially in rural areas where poor people have to travel four or five hours and take an entire day off to go get services.

TEMIN: At the Defense Department?

MYERS: We consider our warfighters to be our customers. So we have zeroed in on the concept of information superiority.

We define that as the right information at the right time to the right person in the right format. I think that in many ways would be applicable to e-government as well because then the “e” part becomes the tool for getting it there as opposed to an end in itself.

CHENOK: I look at e-government as three different stages that aren’t necessarily successive.

Dan Chenok calls the hardest part of e-government the need for interoperability among agencies.
One is basically putting information and services online, making them available in a way that’s easy to find and use. That’s the basic front end.

The harder part is the back-end interoperability issue between agencies to give citizens and businesses and other governments—and even members of our own government—the seamlessness that people have mentioned.

And then the third piece, I would say, is e-governance and citizen participation, where it’s not just about information and services. It’s about using e-government to bring citizens into the process more efficiently, whether that’s a legislative process or a regulatory process, and really create a higher degree of civic participation.

PECK: In the District, we say all constituent-facing services are available to residents, to businesses, to the community, to the education community and to the digital democracy community in their time and place of convenience.

So our perspective is that on-site transactions, high-value transactions and services, are the ones we provide.

LANDY: If I had to say it at it’s simplest, it’s about transforming government.

Melissa Wojciak says Congress wants to be sure that agencies spend e-gov funds wisely.
A lot of people say providing information is the easiest thing to do because it’s just putting information on a Web site. In fact, it is one of the most important things and is not always the easiest thing to do because it’s not just putting information on the Web site. It’s putting it up in a format that is accessible and usable. Having 10 million Web pages is not necessarily accessible and usable.

Providing services electronically, of course, is very important—although in the federal government context, I think less important in some cases than in the state and local context.

And finally, a standard for making government more accessible and accountable to its citizens would be an ultimate goal that would be the most laudable achievement.

WOHLLEBEN: I think of e-government not as technology enablement. I think of it as a state of mind. And to me the state of mind is that you are linking citizens and government, and you’re achieving certain performance goals.

The transformational aspects are what I would focus on, not so much the services. The real impact of transformation is a different government, difficult to achieve, performing services that are contemporary and different than what we’re providing today.

TEMIN: What are the major obstacles?

WOHLLEBEN: I think funding is an issue. There are those who believe there’s enough money out there today, but the government is not spending its money smartly. It’s solving the same problem multiple times in multiple places.

Dave McClure says metrics are needed to demonstrate that
e-government is cost-effective.
And there’s the lack of a really focused strategy with a strong leader.

HOBBS: It’s very clear that one of the biggest obstacles that we’re facing right now is preparing and educating the leadership to lead the transformation.

My sense is that we’re not talking about transforming information technology. IT is a tool that’s in the toolkit to help us. The real notion is rethinking how we engage and provide for citizen involvement in government. And that’s not coming easy to us.

Too often, you’re seeing leaders who are satisfied with how customers access their business. That leaves us with the notion that somehow the technology community is trying to force expensive solutions and changes on folks—that we’re not able to show a real return on investment immediately.

TEMIN: Maybe the government-to-business and the government-to-government pieces—the plumbing, the logistics, the aquisition of supplies, the financial management, all those things the public doesn’t see—are where the real troubles lie. Isn’t that an important piece of e-government, maybe the most important piece?

CANALES: Interoperability is a huge issue for us, not just government-to-government and government-to-business, but local, state and federal.

Ira Hobbs wants agency brass to take charge of the transformation needed for e-gov.
But I think the biggest challenge we have is not the technology, but that the processes, the policies and the funding mechanisms don’t lend themselves to what we want to do as e-government.

Government leadership needs to team together to really change the mechanisms that we have in place so we can work together. I think at this point people are, one, willing to work together and, two, definitely seeing the need to work together. But it’s difficult to work together with the structures we have in place.

TEMIN: How did the Mint do it?

CANALES: The Mint has some things that make it a little easier. One, they’re not spending appropriated money. They make their own money. So they can direct the spending of their money a little bit easier than government as a whole can.

The other issue is that it’s one small agency. It’s not all of government trying to work together to transform the way it provides services.

HOBBS: One of the secrets to the Mint’s success is that it is, in part, a manufacturing organization. That helped it really go to the Web quickly and be able to do something.

Mayi Canales says government leadership must team up to bring about e-government.
But it took the internal collaboration of the management team. It certainly took some vision on the part of the departmental staff in terms of allowing them the freedom to be able to collaborate and move.

TEMIN: I’m hearing two divergent strands. On the one hand, we’re talking about governmentwide leadership. On the other, we’re lauding an agency because of its uniqueness and ability to focus. How do we reconcile these two factors?

CHENOK: I think leadership is necessary but not sufficient. It’s necessary because people need to see there’s a direction and a strategy.

In each of our agencies, we have a good understanding of what the value of e-government is. But for the program side, for the people that are delivering services, this is still very much a mixed bag.

Once we get frontline managers to understand that enabling e-government will allow them to deliver better services, better rail transportation, better education, better unemployment insurance services, that’s when we’ll see transformational change.

LANDY: I’ve heard that within agencies, program managers often lack the proper incentives to take the risks they need to try new technologies in different, innovative ways.

Kevin Landy believes spending more on e-gov now is a down payment on future savings.
A certain number of such attempts are going to fail. And if you look in the private sector, companies are willing to take those risks for the payoffs that they’re going to get.

It’s harder to do that in government because a program manager does not have the incentive, and he’s more afraid of the risk of failure than he is eager to get whatever possibly meager rewards he’s going to get for a successful transformation.

TEMIN: Suzanne, from the city perspective, you said that with limited resources you’ve got to focus on the citizen front-end piece.

PECK: We do not have any reason to exist for ourselves. We exist only to provide service. And the purpose of Web enablement is simply to provide better services.

We have been taking advantage of our opportunity to move from worst to first on virtually every dimension. And one of our internal secrets in the District is that it is absolutely easier to leap from worst to first than it is trying to go from second to first.

So our strategy is that we have the only municipal Web site that has an absolutely common look and feel across all agencies.

Simultaneously, we are developing what we call the Kennedy applications. President Kennedy, when he stood and said, “Before this decade is out, we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth,” really had little idea of what that meant in terms of complexity and dollars.

We have come from this position where if you wanted a proxy for saying something was bad, you said, “Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia.”

We want to be the first municipality in which all of your taxes—business taxes and personal taxes—can be paid online.

Paul Wohlleben questions whether the government is spending its e-gov money smartly.
We are doing an application now called Business Resources Center. D.C. is a city of small businesses. You will never have to leave the convenience of your business to do business with the District of Columbia.

In September of 2002, with the exception of taking the original driver’s license photo and the original registration, you’ll never appear at one of the three Division of Motor Vehicle locations in the District.

We’re making information available from three local and 11 federal public safety information agencies, information that’s never been available before to District residents. And we did that by running to Pennsylvania, grabbing something that had cost them about $32 million and sucking it into the District for less than $1 million.

TEMIN: What are some of the success stories, or what is the state-of-the-art in e-government?

WOJCIAK: I would say looking at our state and local governments, it has been a significant lesson for us in what they’ve done in transforming themselves.

In Virginia, secretary of technology Donald Upson spent a tremendous amount of time pulling in stakeholders from both local governments in Virginia and the state agencies, and moved forward with a number of initiatives that streamlined government, streamlined customer service and streamlined agency-to-agency interactions.

To Margaret Myers, e-gov requires defining the systems that support DOD missions.
Our subcommittee had a hearing where we looked at Pennsylvania as well. And Georgia is transforming itself, and Wyoming is working hard to transform itself into an
e-government because of its rural component and the rural delivery of services.

LANDY: If I were to pick a federal project, one that really sticks out is the Transportation Department’s online rule-making. To me, it illustrates many of the successful features of e-government.

It’s first of all not simply automating processes. It’s transforming and automating. That required restructuring. It required a significant reorganization of department processes.

It also illustrates the idea of increasing citizen participation and making it easier for government to be accountable in improving our democratic processes.

HOBBS: FirstGov is a precursor to what really has to happen, and that is for the first time you can go to one place and scan all of government and get good information.

More important is what happened behind the scenes, the level of collaboration, cooperation, people being pulled along, to make FirstGov happen. It think that foreshadows what must happen in government as a whole.

WOHLLEBEN: When I think of the transformational side, I think, “What systems have I seen out there that made a strategic difference?”

From my experience at the Environmental Protection Agency, I think the EPA’s Envirofacts online database has.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, environmental protection was regulatory and enforcement work. You sued companies.

By putting information out in the hands of citizens, what has happened is they’ve basically changed the whole equation to focus environmental protection on the mom out there carrying the sign in front of the industrial complex. And that’s been power, and it has come from the information being available to the people affected.

TEMIN: How about at DOD?

MYERS: We began to define things in terms of joint mission areas and then looked at the families of systems that it takes to perform our mission. Instead of testing systems and interoperability, we asked, “Could we trace all the way through to perform the mission?”

Well, we began to carry that forward. And that’s where we’re starting to see order-of-magnitude improvements in things, looking at the crosscutting kinds of transformations.

CANALES: The Financial Management Service and the Bureau of the Public Debt re-engineered their provinces to come up with the Savings Bond Connection.

For about $350,000, they re-engineered the way they sell bonds to the public. And within the first year, they made $63 million in addition to what they made through their old way of selling bonds to the public.

MCCLURE: Labor has its e-Law adviser for small businesses that is excellent. The Access America and Access Senior programs that have been around for a couple of years are excellent examples of online service, too.

TEMIN: What should officials do next week to start moving ahead to where Transportation is?

WOHLLEBEN: I think they ought to look at why state and local governments are making more headway and try to emulate them.

There’s no question—in my view anyway—that in Congress, the committee structure has very strong roots. It’ll be difficult to change that. But it’s the key to transforming government down the road.

It’s not going to happen with the current sets of interests focused as they are. They are not transformationally oriented.

TEMIN: Well, Melissa, without putting you on the spot and asking you to advocate changing the entire committee structure in Congress, is that something you talk about in your offices?

WOJCIAK: Absolutely. I guess we’re unique in that we’re on a subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee, so we’re one of the few places where jurisdiction is governmentwide. We try to use that to the greatest extent possible as an opportunity to leverage cross-agency initiatives that would transform all of government.

A big challenge for all of us will be the cultural changes we need to make within our work force, which are significant. We had really great ideas in the early 1990s and mid-1990s, and they came down from the top, and they hit the agencies, and we haven’t gotten them through to the acquisition work force.

We haven’t integrated across work forces either, so that the technology work force is not a separate component but rather everybody is a part of the technology work force. That’s going to take a long time to change. There’s a lot of resistance to that.

And I think that’s something we’re all going to have to grapple with: how we work toward not attacking the work force but helping it transform itself.

TEMIN: What else do agencies need to do right away?

CANALES: They need to get the leadership within agencies to refocus on e-government and things like the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

MCCLURE: There’s never going to be enough money to fund all the e-government things that we want to do, just like there’s never been enough money to fund all the technology projects.

So setting priorities is key. And that can’t be done by a CIO alone.

Metrics will become very important to demonstrate that we are providing more cost-effective government, better quality of service to the citizenry and operational excellence.

These are going to be the watchwords of the next decade.

And to do that, we have to really take some time to collect the data to show that our new way of doing business is indeed more than just a new way of doing business.

It’s improving customer and client satisfaction. It’s making people want to interact with government.

The Internet has a self-service orientation. It is quite different from face-to-face or getting a form in the mail. That kind of service delivery is a little bit more challenging to deliver than traditional mechanisms.

TEMIN: OK. Last question: Do agencies have enough money to do what they need to do transformationally?

HOBBS: I think we need additional resources. Yes, we have money in our agencies. But I think in our particular situation, what we see is that we’re going to have to run dual systems. We’re going to have to have that office that is open five days a week because a lot of our constituents that we serve are going to walk in.

MCCLURE: I think everybody could use more money. We could all certainly spend it if we had it, but I think the question is: Do we know what we need? Until we can present a case on what we need to get e-government done, it’s very difficult to go to Congress and ask for more.

It’s imperative that agencies think through priorities and funding needs to get online and present an aggressive case to Congress as to what’s necessary to get this moving because it won’t happen unless it’s funded.

WOJCIAK: I think Congress has to have more confidence that agencies are setting priorities, that they’ve put in place measures so the money is well spent.

I don’t think there’s enough confidence yet that agencies know how to do that.

MCCLURE: There’s one thing I wanted to add: The funding mechanism we use in the government makes it very difficult compared to the commercial side.

We’re asking an agency to put together a spending plan for IT 18 to 24 months in advance of spending the money. So my portfolio and my priorities 24 months from now in this kind of environment probably will be different. That’s something about which we need to have a dialogue with Congress and the executive branch—how technology should be funded.

LANDY: We spend at least $40 billion a year on federal IT. I don’t know how much of that falls under our definition of e-government, but I think a lot of it would not be considered e-government and is probably being spent inefficiently.

So I would say that we should be spending more on e-government innovation as a down payment on future systems that in the long run will save the government money.

WOHLLEBEN: In the ideal world, I’d say there is enough money. But we’re in the real world where the money is not perhaps in the right places. And I think it’s going to take a bump to lay the foundation.

Take money alone without focus, strategy and strong leadership, and only a bit of it is going to stick and result in progress. I think those other two issues are more important than the money.

For the complete roundtable transcript available in PDF format, visit http://www.gcn.com/vol20_no20a/news/4691-1.html.


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