Putnam sets IT agenda

When it comes to information technology and e-government oversight, there's a new House subcommittee chairman in town.

The House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee is a conglomeration of jurisdictions formerly ruled by the committee's top federal technology watchdogs, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and former Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.).

But with Davis now chairman of the full committee and Horn having retired at the end of his term in 2002, the nuts and bolts of e-government management oversight are in the hands of Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), the House's youngest subcommittee chairman at 28.

Putnam's agenda for the subcommittee stretches across many aspects of the federal IT and e-government arenas. "We do have an aggressive agenda, and I intend to provide vigorous oversight of the areas under the subcommittee's jurisdiction," he said March 13 at his first hearing as chairman.

The hearing tackled the big-picture question of how far the government has progressed with its e-government agenda and the 24 e-government initiatives that are the Bush administration's primary focus for interagency use of technology to improve government services (See "E-gov progress slow," Federal Computer Week, March 17.).

Witnesses agreed that, for now, the initiatives and the agenda as a whole are making progress. But Putnam is just as interested in following through on the E-Government Act of 2002, which is supposed to provide both guidance and funding for e-government efforts. Davis was intimately involved in crafting the act.

The subcommittee can help by pushing appropriators to stick to the $345 million the act authorized for interagency e-government work in the next four years, said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government.

The biggest hurdle to compliance with the E-Government Act, she said, is a lack of cross-government IT funding — money that agencies don't need to haggle over or take out of existing programs.

"That management fund is the glue money, if you will," McGinnis said.

Information security is also a top issue for the subcommittee, and Putnam plans to follow the tradition of oversight that Horn started by continuing his annual security score cards.

The subcommittee's March 25 hearing took a more detailed look at one of the hottest technology solutions the government is using today: data mining.

There are numerous privacy and policy questions that must be answered for high-profile federal data-mining applications, including the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness project and the Transportation Security Administration's proposed Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II. Both systems would search public databases for information on private individuals. The subcommittee plans to examine the issues surrounding those controversial systems at a hearing in May.

But with all of the information already collected by the government and much more information proposed to deal with homeland security, data mining offers many potential benefits for agencies and citizens, Putnam said.

For example, linking census and geospatial data stored at the federal, state and local levels already provides valuable information to individuals and companies, he said.

There is much more information at all government levels that could be used to help agencies provide more effective services, but the subcommittee is considering what possible regulations — if any — might be necessary to put limits on the use of such solutions.

"We need to be slow about coming in and overregulating," Davis said. "I think we are just at the very beginning of a revolution."

The subcommittee itself is involved in a data-mining initiative; it is one of the pilot test subjects for a new technology that links Webcasts of hearings, speeches and other appearances to text transcripts. This link will allow users to search for keywords and phrases in stored electronic records.

The e-Vital initiative led by the Social Security Administration is an example of how the government can use data mining to combine information from many sources, said Mark Forman, associate director for IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget.

Although SSA is managing the initiative, e-Vital also involves information from other federal agencies and all the states, which collect life information such as birth and death records, he said. With all of that information going through a common process and available to all participants, benefits and other services will be available much faster and with fewer erroneous payments, he said.

Beyond the benefits, there are privacy concerns inherent in linking personal information that was separate before. And this is where the subcommittee will have to look further into the issues surrounding not only data mining, but also the general combining of information across government, Putnam said.

"We will be focusing very, very directly on this topic throughout the 108th Congress," he said. "It's an important issue and it holds the potential for tremendous progress...and frankly it raises some red flags."

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