E-Government: Smoke and mirrors

The White House e-government strategy deserves applause because it has rallied federal agencies around a set of issues that press for immediate attention.

But beyond kudos for cheerleading, the e-government strategy is an empty charade. It is time to say in public what everyone whispers in private — that this emperor wears no clothes.

If it amounts to anything, e-government means that the federal government electronically provides information and services to citizens, business and other governments.

I will leave to another column exploration of e-government information access. New curbs on the public's right to know amply contradict White House rhetoric about more and better e-government information access. New restrictions on the release of presidential records, for example, have nothing to do with terrorism.

Looking just at government services, e-government means that the government will automate delivery of services now handled manually. The promise is that time-consuming face-to-face and paper-based transactions will become electronic, occurring at Internet speed.

How will this happen? Automating traditionally manual processes in any agency requires information technology systems that in almost every case do not exist. New IT systems require capital investment. These are plain facts that rhetoric cannot make go away.

What does the Bush administration propose to spend on new e-government IT system initiatives? The answer is virtually nothing, barely pocket change. Indeed, $5 million spread across all the agencies is peanuts.

Whom do they think they are kidding? The actual game plan for e-government — not the ad campaign found in the White House budget — is clear. Throw buzzwords and promises, but no real money, at e-government. Beat the drums, convene interagency task forces and beat up on agencies. Ignore the failures and the need for serious capital planning and billions of new dollars in this area. Ferret out the few successes that were bound to happen anyway because some of the agencies were already taking the issues seriously. Declare victory because of these successes and ride off into the sunset.

But real improvement in e-government services — new capability to accomplish electronic transactions easily and conveniently between the government and its clientele — will largely go begging because no serious money is earmarked for necessary IT systems. The Office of Management and Budget may huff and puff about reordering priorities, cutting fat and reallocating funds from other programs, but that is just putting on a magic show in hopes that no one will closely examine the rhetorical ploy.

It is a cynical political strategy, even though this administration is not the first and will not be the last to use it. I just want some truth in labeling for the administration's e-government strategy. Let's call it what it really is — smoke and mirrors.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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