At arm's length

Much of what the government has accomplished in improving the way it buys and develops information technology can be attributed to a decade-long effort to encourage partnerships between government and industry. But as that relationship becomes closer, IT managers should be careful not to move from partner to industry promoter.

The latest manifestation of a cozier public/private link is the Office of Management and Budget's proposal to piggyback some of the e-government initiatives on to commercial Web portal platforms in order to offer services to federal employees or the public.

The argument, as presented by Mark Forman, associate director for IT and e-government at OMB, asks why agencies should spend millions of dollars to build a proprietary portal to offer, say, electronic travel reservation services when Orbitz LLC already has an operational travel site.

This idea, just the latest of Forman's efforts to find ways to improve federal electronic services while reducing costs, is one that federal contractors would never have considered in the days before procurement reform, but a good one to pursue.

Public/private partnerships, though, while reducing procurement costs and saving time, could put agencies in compromising positions.

Some agencies' sites are experimenting with co-branding, in which an IT company's logo appears on the government site. Such agreements move the federal government closer to the line of implicitly endorsing the company.

State and local government IT managers who sell advertising on their Web sites have to defend the practice to critics who charge that the ads could be construed as an endorsement of the company, or worse, that the company had a say in site content.

Even if the companies had no such influence, the mere appearance of an impropriety should be enough to steer agencies away from such practices.

Allowing publicly owned Web sites — electronic institutional images of the citizen-owned government — to be a platform for marketing purposes begins to blur the line between partnership and active promotion.

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