E-gov skills start with cooperation

When Jim Van Wert saw the opportunity to work on an e-government project, he jumped at it. As the Small Business Administration’s acting ombudsman, he represented the agency during the Office of Management and Budget’s development of the Quicksilver program. And when SBA and OMB sought a project leader for the Business Compliance One-Stop initiative, Van Wert couldn’t resist.

Managing a cross-agency and intergovernmental project is nothing new for Van Wert. He helped develop SBA’s U.S. Business Advisor site, at www.business.gov, and he also was the project manager for TradeNet’s Export Advisor, an interagency portal at www.tradenet.gov.

Van Wert developed his project management skills during his 32-year government career in policy, planning, program evaluation, financial and other management positions at six agencies.

Van Wert, who at one time considered entering the priesthood, earned a master’s degree in theology from L’Universite de Louvain in Belgium, and master’s and doctoral degrees in public administration from the University of Southern California.

Staff writer Jason Miller interviewed Van Wert at his SBA office.

GCN: Briefly describe the goals of your e-government project.

VAN WERT: The best way to describe Business Compliance One-Stop is the goal statement. Reduce the burden on businesses by doing three things: Make it easy to find, understand and comply with governmental laws and regulations. The effort we are making is cross-agency and intergovernmental. There are nine federal partners and six states.

The interaction between business and government is complicated, expensive and burdensome. One of the most inherently governmental functions is passing laws and implementing regulations.

What is the result of this body of laws and regulations? We are talking about—at the federal level—140,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations and we are talking about 83,000 pages of the Federal Register in proposals down the road.

Research shows that businesses spend on an annual basis about $500 billion to find, understand and comply with federal laws and regulations.

We looked at the research, and it turns out there are three things that businesses find most burdensome in the arena of laws and regulations: taxes, hiring and managing employees, and licensing and permitting. We decided to focus on four areas: environmental, workplace health and safety, and taxes and employment.

GCN: What have you accomplished in the first 15 months?

VAN WERT: The creation and implementation of the businesslaw.gov Web site was completed in December 2001. Business Compliance One-Stop is Phase 2 of businesslaw.gov.

We have three sets of deliverables linked to businesslaw.gov.

We have piloted a portal maximizer, an engine that sits on the site to index, spider and map dynamically. It creates a theme for a user’s query.

The idea is to help businesses find out what they don’t know. The pilot went outside the firewall in December.

The second set of deliverables is four online guides: environment, health and safety, taxes and employment.

In all of these, I bring the technology, and the agencies provide the content and do the data models.

We did a project on the environment. The second tool is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s emergency evacuation procedures, under workplace health and safety.

For the employment guide, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is doing two projects.

One is an alien visa classification e-tool, which helps businesses understand what they have to do to make sure the people that work for them are legal and documented. Then there is Form I-9, which all employers must provide for everyone they hire—it’s just about completed.

The last one is the taxes portion from the IRS. That is not ready yet.

GCN: What has been most challenging about managing an e-government project? What has been most rewarding?

VAN WERT: The most challenging part is finding the win-win across the boundaries, across federal agencies and across state and local agencies, and finding the resources. Secondly, understanding who has the resources in terms of helping answer the ownership and maintenance questions. And thirdly, figuring how do we build this into a business model.

The big challenge for me has been getting the resources internally. It is a challenge to identify the people we need to work on it. I got the financial resources from the Office of Management and Budget. The Small Business Administration’s Office of General Counsel agreed to own this as a program if I would be a conductor.

The most rewarding part is that the partnerships are evolving and the business community has expressed a lot of support and desire to participate. That is pretty good when people will bring their money to the table.

GCN: Has the fact that SBA is a smaller agency presented extra challenges?

VAN WERT: The biggest challenge is selling the agency. There is a misconception that SBA, as a small agency dealing with small businesses, might not have the capacity or the breadth to deal with the Business Compliance One-Stop effort. We are the only group that can represent a cross-governmental view, has the grassroots presence and already works with regulatory agencies.

GCN: What kinds of pressure do you feel in making sure projects are getting done?

VAN WERT: There is a lot of pressure. OMB is using a monthly scorecard at our project manager meetings. Someone in OMB is coming up with red, yellow or green for deployment and resources. Mark Forman, OMB’s associate director for IT and e-government, is driving results, and the President’s Management Agenda is driving him.

GCN: OMB laid out an 18- to 24-month time frame for most of these projects. How does your project fit in that schedule?

VAN WERT: The window of opportunity is up to November 2004. Once the presidential campaign gets into full gear in the next six months, we’ll start to lose the attention of the political leadership. So we need to have a sense of urgency.

We have to keep up with the time frame, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with procurement and budget cycles.

You need an entrepreneurial business time frame, but the challenge is that we haven’t changed the governmental process structure, which does not move quickly, whether it’s procurement, budget or personnel.

GCN: What aspects of the e-government process do you think worked well? What aspects would you change?

VAN WERT: What the administration is doing correctly is putting it into the power structure. They have identified a person, Mark Forman, whose whole job is to be e-gov czar, and OMB director Mitchell E. Daniels is trying to put the power of the purse behind it with Clinger-Cohen Act letters.

What I would do a little differently is adjust the use of the departmental scorecard. That is using a meat ax when you want to filet fish.

The Commerce Department is not one entity. None of these departments are anything but loose confederations.

What I would have done a little earlier in the process—and this is hindsight talking—was to create the Solution Architect Working Group.

All 25 of these projects have the same challenges, and all 25 managers should have better access to federal enterprise architecture stuff.

Put the business rules and data elements in plain English.

I would probably come up with an innovation fund, a pot of money people can write grants to and justify the cost. Make it available to all 25 projects as an independent source of money.

One thing I learned was the best thing to help build partnerships was having a small amount of money to bring to the table. That really helped me.


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