E-commerce: elusive ideal

E-commerce: elusive ideal<@VM>GAO says paperwork elimination plans fall short

Agencies struggle to overcome hurdles

Agencies are advancing toward the promised land of electronic commerce—but not without hitting cultural, technological, economic and even national security potholes.

Governments at all levels continue to shift transactions to the Internet. And although agencies point out e-government successes, independent evaluations have focused on the government’s shortcomings.

In 1998 the Government Paperwork Elimination Act ordered that by Oct. 21, 2003, agencies must provide information electronically when practicable.

According to the General Accounting Office, thousands of government activities likely won’t be converted to electronic form by the 2003 deadline.

Although the government’s volume of electronic transactions is growing, outside entities find the government a troublesome customer, with many standards for payment and transactions.

Tom Pyke, acting CIO of the Commerce Department and CIO of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, touted progress toward e-commerce but acknowledged that it’s not an easy road.

From the beginnings

A career federal employee, he started at the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, when he was in college and stayed to help build the protocols for the Arpanet, the Internet’s precursor, and several other high-performance computing programs at NIST and NOAA.

Pyke cited Commerce’s involvement in 16 of the 24 high-priority e-government initiatives selected by the Office of Management and Budget for special funding under the president’s management agenda.

“Over the long term, we have identified 123 electronic- government applications across the Department of Commerce,” Pyke said. “These are applications that are amenable to being placed online with transactions being conducted online in support of our customers.”

He said that of the applications, Commerce already has placed 25 of the systems online and plans to place more than 50 of them online by the end of next year.

Pyke said the government has progressed from providing information on the Internet and the Web to providing online transactions.

He cited the emergence of the Extensible Markup Language and other Web services standards such as the Simple Object Access Protocol, Universal Description and Discovery Integration and the Web Service Description Language in tying together incompatible applications for presentation via Web portals.

“The next step is through the use of XML and technologies that will allow agents on our behalf and other people’s behalf to talk to each other in a smart way,” Pyke said.

He cautioned government IT executives to be prepared for major efforts when they tackle e-gov projects, and he emphasized the need for “money, people and the sheer will to want to do a better job in carrying out the business of the agency or organization and to change the way it interacts with customers.”

Like many other e-government specialists, Pyke noted the fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks and stressed the need to focus on security.

Sallie McDonald, assistant commissioner of the Federal Technology Service’s Office of Information Assurance and Critical Infrastructure Protection, also cited a renewed emphasis on security since Sept. 11.

“For the first time, we will incorporate security into all plans,” she said. “I think the new emphasis is to look at the architecture of programs we have established to make sure the security is built in, as opposed to in the past, when we might have just slapped firewalls on.”

McDonald said increasing use of handheld systems has created security holes that make her “cringe because I don’t believe the technology is there yet to make sure their communications are secure.”

Matthew Berk, analyst with Jupiter Media Metrix of New York, said an impediment to government e-commerce is the “scale, scope and baggage” of the problem.

“It is less a problem with e-commerce than about organization,” he said. “The organizations leveraging e-commerce are nimble—the ones that can evolve their organizations to meet the needs of e-commerce.”

The critical factors in the mix are the need to evolve management and accountability to adjust to new technologies, Berk said.

“If there is a wall between the group that handles the technology and the one that mandates the initiative, you get miscommunication or deployment of the wrong technology for the wrong reason,” he said.

He cited an example of a Jupiter client with a customer in the government who wanted to use an e-commerce site.
“When it came time to recommending a platform for e-commerce and content management and account management, the reply from the agency was, ‘We’ll build that all ourselves,’ ” Berk said.

“That’s a pretty limited response to the kinds of technologies that have been around for a while and are cost-rational for electronic commerce.”

Incomplete solution

Although agencies have made good progress in putting information and some services and transactions on the Web, the next piece of the puzzle—fully transformational activities that link Web interfaces with back-end systems—has proved elusive.

“That’s going to be true for a while,” said Christopher Baum, e-government analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. “What the government is focusing on now are things that raise revenue and cut costs.”

Long-range projects necessary for e-commerce, such as record-keeping, record consolidation, common payroll and purchasing systems, require investments that have become harder amid new, post-Sept. 11 priorities.

“The trouble is that, right now, the money for investment isn’t there,” Baum said. “It was two years ago and maybe it will be two years from now, but right now they’re in a stand-and-wait mode.”

Baum also listed other obstacles to e-commerce, including cultural and compliance factors.

“First of all, you’ve got a work force challenge,” he said. “You might have a 10-year project, where half of the staff is due to retire in five or six years.”

He also cited the cultural impact of changing “an environment that has thrived on paper,” and the need to make systems compliant with such mandates as Section 508 accessibility requirements.

“And finally, you have to have a holistic view of security,” Baum said. “What happens when you don’t is you have the debacle that the Department of Interior went through,” in which a federal judge ordered the department to cut most of its Internet connections to prevent hacking.

To avoid failure, Commerce’s Pyke said, managers “will have to take a fresh look at how they are doing business, internally as well as externally.”<@vm>In recent reports the General Accounting Office has cast a critical eye on federal e-government programs.

In a report last fall, the audit agency assessed progress toward complying with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, based on information 56 agencies submitted to the Office of Management and Budget.

GAO found that 3,048 activities were scheduled for transition to electronic processes by the October 2003 deadline.

But most of the agencies planned to push up against the deadline—1,999 of the activities, or 66 percent, weren’t scheduled for conversion until 2003. And an additional 3,860 transactions weren’t scheduled for conversion at all, according to the report, Electronic Government: Better Information Needed on Agencies’ Implementation of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

The agencies that reported their plans to OMB for GPEA compliance included neither milestones for the conversions nor cost and funding options, GAO said.

GAO also reported that 22 agencies had identified 249 high-risk activities among those eligible for electronic conversion but planned to convert fewer than a quarter because of cost, security, privacy, technology readiness and legal concerns. The agencies planned to rely heavily on electronic signatures, a technology not widely used by citizens, GAO found.

The report concluded that because many conversions were not planned until next year at the earliest, most agencies are at risk of not meeting the deadline. GAO also said many conversion plans were incomplete and the lack of complete data would hinder OMB’s ability to ensure compliance.

In another study prepared late last year, GAO detailed the obstacles small businesses say they face in conducting electronic procurements with the government.

Among the problems cited were the government’s multiplicity of procurement Web sites, including those operated by the Defense Logistics Agency, the General Services Administration, NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

—Wilson P. Dizard III


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