Despite mixed results, feds make GPEA a priority

October will mark five years since President Clinton signed the Government Paperwork Elimination Act in the hope that Internet technology would change the way the government interacts with citizens. Although the Net has transformed how agencies do business, the government will fall short of GPEA’s vision.

The Office of Management and Budget estimates that only 52 percent of the 5,800 federal transactions that could be electronic under the GPEA mandate will meet the law’s Oct. 21 deadline. Although that percentage may be significantly higher because agencies are purposely underestimating their accomplishments, the government as a whole will not reach the GPEA vision of a paperless world, administration officials said.

“We are a little lagging, but we’d rather have smart electrification than just process-based forms,” said Mark Forman, OMB’s associate director for e-government and IT. “Our focus is on where we have the bulk of transactions—government-to-business—and how smartly we move them online.”

OMB issued GPEA guidance in October 2000, giving agencies three years to develop inventories, create migration plans and re-engineer processes that rely on paper.

Success has been mixed at best. Yet even as agencies struggle to meet the deadline, federal IT chiefs said GPEA efforts are easing the paper and time burden on citizens.

When Congress passed GPEA, which included provisions for the use and acceptance of electronic signatures, no one realized the mountain agencies were expected to climb.

“People were enamored with the possibilities of the e-world,” said John Spotila, former administrator for OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during the Clinton administration and current chief operating officer for GTSI Corp. of Chantilly, Va. “But it is harder than it seems. A lot of agencies have to work together to bring this about.”
Forman also sees agency collaboration as key to GPEA success. He said agencies need to integrate their efforts with some of OMB’s 25 Quicksilver e-government initiatives, such as the Treasury Department’s Expanded Electronic Tax Products for Businesses and the Small Business Administration’s Business Compliance One-Stop projects.

“Agencies can leverage either of these projects instead of electronic versions of paper forms,” Forman said. “Agencies not playing in any of the e-government projects must figure out how the online transactions fit with their modernization blueprint.”

The goal, Forman said, is not just to Web-enable forms but to reduce the burden of the information collection.

Similar paths

Agencies—such as the Commerce Department, the General Services Administration, NASA and the Transportation Department—that are succeeding in meeting GPEA requirements traveled similar paths. They usually are ahead of the curve in using technology.

GSA, for instance, has advanced its use of technology to improve business processes ahead of many other agencies, said Diane Savoy, director of policy and plans in GSA’s CIO office.

“The business culture of GSA helped us adapt to expectations,” she said.

Transportation’s inventory included 402 transactions—only Treasury and the Environmental Protection Agency had more—and officials expect to digitize more than 90 percent of them by October.

The department’s path to meeting GPEA began after the deputy secretary asked that e-government liaisons be designated for every Transportation agency, said Phyllis Preston, director of resource management and former associate CIO for DOT, who was in charge of GPEA compliance.

“We took more than one attack path to make sure we were compliant,” Preston said. “A little bit of education for the agency liaisons about what the law meant helped a lot, too.”

Preston said support from the secretary and deputy secretary made a big difference.

“The deputy secretary requested that GPEA compliance come under the e-government umbrella,” Preston said. “This was important to demonstrate top-level interest and commitment to meet the deadline.”

Color-coded grades

DOT developed an online monitoring and reporting tool on its intranet. Preston said IT employees put a page summary of each transaction into the system and a chart that included the name of the responsible agency, title of the item and status of the project. It also has a rating system that grades each transaction with a red, yellow or green score or C for completed.

“The administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, for instance, faced a lot of red, yellows or greens, which made it easy to convey progress,” Preston said.

The Commerce Department also uses an online system to track progress. Tom Pyke, Commerce’s CIO, said his office called for agencies to submit GPEA data biannually and since last fall has asked for monthly reports.

“We made this a priority,” he said. “We did GPEA for the most part by simply changing the way we did business.”

OMB wants to see agencies re-engineer their business practices to comply with GPEA, Forman said.

“Agencies that moved out fast and early with Adobe Portable Document Format forms will not cut it,” he said. “We want something that is more in sync with e-business technology in the citizen and business communities.”

Forman is suggesting agencies use Extensible Markup Language schemas to put information collection online so they can collect data once and use it many times.

Many agencies have cited funding restraints as a barrier to GPEA, OMB officials said. But in successful departments, officials said meeting the mandate was a matter of setting priorities.
Preston said resource constraints are a fact of life in the federal government, and agencies have to improve their business processes to free up funds.

Pyke said Commerce is requesting funds from Congress for seven of the nine remaining transactions that his agency will not have ready by October. “Even when GPEA fades away, we will continue to move in that direction,” Pyke said. “It is built into our way of doing things.”

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