A time to lead

The annual dance opera about agency information technology appropriations is under way. Although the usual motions are generally being observed, three aspects of this year's performance are notable.

First, President Bush has proposed a larger-than-usual number of crosscutting initiatives to promote homeland security and e-government. Second, there is widespread skepticism about the White House's ability to actually coordinate these initiatives. Third, the temperature in the dance hall is surprisingly chilly. The nation would be better served if all the players took a broader view of the public interest.

The 24 e-government initiatives designed to "unify and simplify" rely on a lead agency to choreograph independent agency programs into coherent service offerings. They depend, at minimum, on coordinated funding from multiple agency accounts and, in some cases, on actual shifts of funds across accounts. The government-to-government initiatives also fall within homeland security's ambit and are dwarfed by higher-priced program initiatives, such as creating more effective controls at U.S. borders.

The need for rapid action on these coordinated initiatives is increased by the paradoxical effect that their announcement has on current programs. Not a few program managers are slowing their current modernization efforts to avoid going down a path that may prove to be inconsistent with a simplified and unified approach. Uncertainty breeds inaction.

Successful funding depends on two factors — convincing agencies and appropriations committees to cooperate, and those entities' willingness to take a big-picture view. On the former, much has been made of the supposed weak authorities of the E-Government and Homeland Security offices. In fact, there is no stronger executive branch authority than a coherent White House team that brings together policy, budget, legislative and public affairs to pursue a common goal.

The current teams began work with several advantages, including public and bipartisan support for a strong post-Sept. 11 response. Successful execution in the face of inevitable slackening of fervor, the natural centrifugal tendency of the agencies and an incredible layering of committees and working groups will test the leadership skills of many of the insiders.

Equally challenging is the political climate. The high-stakes game of chicken that the Bush administration is playing with Congress over executive branch authorities, although motivated by valid constitutional concerns, affects the appetite for collaboration among officials of both branches.

Those with experience in promoting good management know that when the elephants start to rumble, it's prudent to avoid being underfoot.

Leadership — in this case the willingness to offer turf for the broader good — is always in short supply in Washington, D.C. But real progress requires it now.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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