The $5 million question

In the context of the federal budget, $5 million is barely a rounding error. Yet a battle is being waged that is crucial to everyone interested in e-government — and to the government's ability to make the transition to greater interagency collaboration in the post-Sept. 11 world.

The point of contention is a fiscal 2003 $5 million budget request by the Small Business Administration for its Business Compliance One Stop, which is one of the Bush administration's 24 e-government initiatives.

The idea is to develop online services in which a specific kind of business — such as trucking companies and start-up firms — will be able to go to one Web site to get information about the regulations that apply to it, help determine whether it's complying with those regulations, and apply for licenses and permits online. The initiative is a superb idea, and it falls squarely within SBA's mission.

It also, obviously, requires information technology links and programmatic collaboration agencywide — and eventually across federal, state and local governments — whose regulations, procedures and forms will provide the content.

This kind of collaboration, required in many e-government efforts, is something everybody knows needs to happen much more. But it's no easy task because of issues of differing missions and priorities, credit-claiming and turf battles.

The administration has come up with a good idea for making Business Compliance One Stop happen. Officials have requested an appropriation of $5 million for SBA, the managing partner for the project, but a good part of the funds are to be used to contract with other agencies that have the expertise needed to develop content about their agencies' regulations.

For example, SBA is hiring a contractor to work with the Internal Revenue Service to develop a tool to help people figure out whether to file tax forms as employees or independent contractors, and to fund efforts by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to help businesses comply with immigration laws. It's logical for SBA to make use of this expertise. It opens the door to cooperation in a project that wouldn't otherwise be a priority and sets the stage for further collaboration.

Unfortunately, the Senate Appropriations Committee has zeroed out this request; action by the House Appropriations Committee is pending. This innovative budget approach flies in the face of long-standing appropriations territories and a view that SBA dollars should not be spent by other agencies, even though spending them in that manner is a more effective way to meet SBA's mission.

There's a lot at stake in this $5 million question. We're going to need more examples of innovative appropriations arrangements if a new collaborative world is ever going to become a reality. Let's hope congressional appropriators are able to respond to a new age with some new thinking.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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