The funding stress point

Word is out that the President's Management Council has approved a list of 23 e-government initiatives to be completed within the next two years. Few details are known, but even the basic outline of the plan makes clear that the Bush administration is putting e-government to the test. Much will be learned from its success or its failure.

A task force, headed by President Bush's e-government point man, Mark Forman, came up with the list by looking for applications that are supported by a clear business case and that address the interests of multiple agencies. Both points are telling and closely related.

The idea of making a business case has always been a sticking point in the online world. Many commercial online ventures failed because ideas that looked good on paper did not provide adequate returns on investment. Government agencies would seem to have an easier time of it because they are not looking to turn a profit, but to lower the cost and improve the quality of their services.

Although agency chief information officers don't have venture capitalists to answer to, they do have Congress. Their success in securing funding for online projects ultimately depends on their ability to justify the investments they propose making.

The issue is even harder here because of the collaborative nature of the e-government projects. The White House wants a $20 million pool of money for such initiatives in 2002, but that may not be enough to cover the work involved with all 23 projects. Given that they cross agency boundaries, who will foot the remaining bill? This has been a constant problem with crossagency projects, such as the Next Generation Internet, a high-bandwidth networking initiative. In past years, Congress has cut NGI funding at several agencies, while leaving it intact at others, making it difficult for these agencies to work together as intended.

In the case of e-government, a similar problem could significantly weaken the business case for many of the projects.

Funding clearly is a stress point in the e-government plan. If agencies work with Congress—and each other—to maintain a clear funding strategy, the initiatives could bear fruit for years to come. But if handled poorly, funding is where the administration's program will fall apart.

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