OMB's new hand

The Bush administration has pulled out a budgetary trump card, citing a little noticed provision in the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 giving it the power to cut or move funding for information technology programs — even if Congress already appropriated money for the program. This card could change the game considerably, and the administration would do well to collaborate with agencies and Congress when they play it.

Norman Lorentz, chief technology officer at the Office of Management and Budget, said last month that the administration planned to exercise a provision of Clinger-Cohen that gives OMB the authority to cut or move funding for redundant and underperforming IT programs. This obscure power is one of the most powerful weapons in OMB's arsenal to implement its E-Government Strategy, part of which entails consolidating similar IT programs scattered throughout agencies and cutting IT spending in general.

OMB is certainly headed for a tussle with Congress, which doesn't want its dictates for IT spending changed substantially, and with government IT workers, who will be affected by the changes. Some members of Congress have already said OMB should be ready for a fight. Other longtime federal IT experts with agency and OMB experience are a bit surprised by the agency's bravado.

The impending fight doesn't mean that OMB's goals — namely, redirecting IT spending to save money and supporting programs that can improve government services — aren't a good idea. It depends on how officials go about achieving them.

One way to avoid, or at least scale back, the impending battle is for OMB to seek input from agencies and Congress and simply talk to those who would be affected. Often, such openness allows managers to avoid a policy's unforeseen problems. Those in the know can alert managers to pitfalls, and discussions can remove any misunderstandings and build a common ground.

Will such cooperation block potential infighting? No, but OMB could end up with a politically viable solution.

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