IT budget takes on e-gov

President Bush last year highlighted e-government initiatives as a way to transform government and deliver services more effectively. With the fiscal 2003 budget, the administration is backing up that priority with money.

A new and improved FirstGov Web portal, set to go live this month, is only one of several e-government programs to receive funding in the $52 billion fiscal 2003 information technology budget.

The portal falls within the 24 e-government initiatives, identified by an interagency task force, that seek to improve government services through IT. And starting in fiscal 2003, the portal will be the Web face of the new Office of Citizen Services.

The Bush administration is creating this office, based in the General Services Administration, as the single federal point of contact for citizens. It is modeled after similar offices in other countries, said Mark Forman, the Office of Management and Budget's associate director for IT and e-government.

Many state and international governments, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have found great success by providing a single policy and operations office for citizens, he said.

The U.S. office also will oversee GSA's National Contact Center at the Federal Consumer Information Center, where citizens will be able to access all government services by phone, e-mail and fax.

Currently, the center can only handle phone calls, but the fiscal 2003 budget includes a $5 million increase to add e-mail and self-help capabilities, said John Sindelar, deputy associate administrator for GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

The exact structure of the office is still being decided, he said, but it is important to create a central authority that can organize and manage all outreach activities across the federal government and work with state and local governments.

The new FirstGov site will be the first truly citizen-focused version of the portal, Forman said. The driving force behind the upgrade is the idea of "three clicks to service." Users will start by clicking on the appropriate identifier — individual, business or government — to bring them to the services offered under that heading. By clicking on the service they're interested in, they will go directly to the page within the Web site of the agency providing that service. The final click will give them access to the service itself.

The $5 million increase requested for the FirstGov budget will also fund content management tools to make it easier to add and track information and services, Sindelar said. This is particularly important as agencies continue to add to their own sites, which are linked to FirstGov.

When the new FirstGov is launched, OMB also will release the strategy report on the e-government initiatives, including strategic goals and performance measures, Forman said. However, although each initiative's cross-agency team was required to complete a business case that included investment plans, management plans and performance measurements, the report will not include them and will not break down the budget requests for each.

Of the 24 initiatives, only the Small Business Administration's $5 million request for the one-stop portal BusinessLaw.gov was mentioned in the fiscal 2003 budget request.

The business cases and the strategy report outline the changes that agencies must make to unify their programs under the individual initiatives, but making those changes will not be easy, said Paul Brubaker, president of e-government solutions at Commerce One Inc. and a former deputy chief information officer at the Defense Department.

Part of OMB's solution is to develop incentives for the interagency teams as each initiative is measured against its goals. "It takes a mixture of some carrot and some stick," Forman said.

This includes offering a bonus to the two top-performing initiatives, which would receive a portion of the $45 million requested for an e-government fund in fiscal 2003, he said.

Meanwhile, the administration still plans to seek $100 million for its e-government fund by fiscal 2004, even though Congress approved only $5 million of the $20 million requested for the fund in fiscal 2002, Forman said. This year, agencies and the President's Management Council — which oversees the e-government initiatives — have agreed to present a uniform message to Congress on the e-government fund so legislators do not receive conflicting signals, Forman said.

The strategy report for the e-government initiatives should also help because it gives Congress detailed information on potential projects, rather than the abstract idea presented last year, Sindelar said.

"Last year was at the start," he said. "Now they've got projects, they've got business plans."

"A lot needs to be done in e-government," particularly in cross-agency initiatives, said John Spotila, former director of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and now president of GTSI Corp. But prospects for additional e-government spending appear dim.

Even without homeland security absorbing most of the IT dollars, cross-agency projects have never been a favorite of Congress, where appropriations are awarded through a "stovepipe system" of committees that makes a multi-agency approach difficult, he said.

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