Measuring e-gov

When the question was whether to build a highway over the mountains, it was pretty easy to calculate the cost of the project vs. the benefit to society, Jerry Mechling says. The savings in fuel and time, improvements in safety, even the probable increase in commerce could be compared against the cost of the road with relative ease.

But that sort of basic cost/benefit analysis is proving inadequate in the realm of e-government, said Mechling, who is a strategic computing and telecommunications specialist at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Confronted with hundreds of plausible-sounding e-government projects, federal agency executives are bewildered by the choices and baffled by trying to determine which projects are most useful, who will benefit and which are most likely to succeed.

The lack of clear answers has led to "relatively sluggish progress being made toward e-government in this country and throughout most of the world," say e-government experts at the consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton.

Now, Mechling and Booz Allen officials say they have devised a decision-making methodology to cut through the uncertainty.

With $220,000 from the Social Security Administration and the General Services Administration, Mechling and the consulting firm have developed a decision-making metric that subjects e-government projects to "multidimensional analysis" to determine their value to government.

The metric, which is being called the Value Measuring Methodology (VMM), evaluates projects for six essential factors. Going well beyond the standard cost/benefit analysis, VMM also weighs a project's political and social value and considers whether a project adds to the e-government foundation.

Thus, a project might be costly, but still could be attractive if it offers substantial social value or helps expand the foundation for future e-government developments. At the same time, a project that promises to save money might be shelved because it benefits only a narrow segment of the public and thus is politically unappealing.

Such calculus may seem pretty rudimentary, but the equations become a lot more complex when e-government proj.ects begin to cross agency jurisdictions or involve public/private collaboration, Mechling said.

And the decisions will be tougher still when e-government reaches its next major phase, which will require changes in government workflows, the elimination or transfer of jobs and the shift of government functions from one agency to another.

So far, federal agencies have mostly avoided the kind of extensive re- engineering that e-government will require to be truly effective, said Michelle Quadt, who led the VMM effort for Booz Allen. Instead, federal agencies have been busy "re-creating the stovepipes in cyberspace," she said.

VMM should help make agency-oriented duplication more obvious to agency supervisors at the Office of Management and Budget, Quadt said.

E-government is supposed to make it easier for government agencies to work together to better provide the services that citizens need, she said. But transforming the agency-centric federal bureaucracy into a seamless, citizen-centric government is expected to be a battle.

Agencies "are likely to exhibit significant resistance to dismantling niche business units and processes, fearing that doing so will result in loss of control, funding and ultimately mission," Quadt and other Booz Allen consultants wrote in a paper describing VMM.

"The Value Measuring Methodology alone isn't going to solve that problem," Mechling said. But at least it will encourage government managers to ask the right questions when evaluating e-government projects, he added.

Beyond helping arbitrate among agencies, VMM is designed to provide e-government managers with a basis for judging the value of e-government proj.ects that had no equivalent before e-government.

As e-government matures, its focus will shift from simply providing online access to pre-existing services to offering new services and new ways of doing things, Mechling said. The newness "will beg for a kind of methodology that allows success to be defined."

How well the methodology will work under those circumstances remains to be seen, said Tony Trenkle, deputy associate commissioner for electronic services at SSA.

"One of the issues we need to find out through testing is whether it is simple enough to be usable," said Trenkle, whose agency saw the need for a way to measure e-government. "We can't answer that question until we test it on a few applications. It's an ambitious model.

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