Funding issues slow e-gov progress

The Bush administration has made significant progress on its e-government strategy, but in order to move ahead faster, Congress must fully fund the government's central e-government account, officials and experts say.

The administration issued an updated e-government strategy earlier this month, which, among other things, sets a time line for the deactivation of several old systems. Key to the success of that strategy, however, will be resolving the funding issue.

For the past three years, the administration has requested $20 million to $45 million for the e-government fund, which is intended to kick-start cross-agency initiatives. Each year, Congress has appropriated only $5 million, however, forcing agencies and the Office of Management and Budget to pool money and slowing e-government cooperation considerably, said Mark Forman, administrator of the new Office of E-Government and IT within OMB.

"We can consolidate, [but] we can move much faster if we have the additional seed money," he said.

Without the central fund to draw from, OMB has to spend time on planning and negotiations that could otherwise be spent on development, Forman said. And the more time it takes to create cross-agency systems and programs that multiple agencies can use, the more money is wasted.

"We have to do these initiatives. We have to stop redundant spending," he said. "Our workaround is basically to tighten up on the funding strategy with the partners [in the 24 e-government initiatives], and we can't move as fast as we want to."

"One of the continuing problems [in the e-government strategy] obviously is the whole funding issue," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "They're clearly falling behind because Congress won't put the bucks on the table and it's having a negative ripple effect" on other projects.

Congress has authorized plenty of money for Forman's new office, established by the E-Government Act of 2002. The act authorizes $345 million for a central fund in the next six years, but so far there is no sign that Congress plans to appropriate that money.

In fiscal 2004, the Bush administration again asked for $45 million, but it has also included a request for additional authorities that would allow agencies that contribute to a cross-agency initiative to keep money from the savings the initiative generates, Forman said. How much each agency puts in and how much each gets back would be established case by case.

"There is no right way or wrong way to do it, you've got to be specific," Forman said.

This is already an approach OMB favors because it makes agencies much more willing to step forward with money, said Paul Brubaker, a partner at ICG Government and former deputy chief information officer at the Defense Department. But having it in appropriations language would be a big step in the right direction if Congress still does not feel it can afford to fulfill the $45 million request, he said.

"It provides a long-overdue incentive," he said. "I think that [agencies] would believe it is real" if it is actually included in appropriations legislation.

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