When or will e-government apps pay off?

Government and federal watchdog officials debated today whether e-government will prove to be a money-saver in the end or instead create new expenses because agencies must maintain electronic and paper processes.

The Office of Management and Budget has advocated e-government as a cost-savings effort because agencies will be able to eliminate redundant systems.

But some speakers at a Washington seminar sponsored partly by the Council of Excellence in Government said they aren’t so sure of the payoff.

“I think it’s a slippery slope to say e-government is going to decrease costs,” said Jim J. Tozzi, a former OMB IT official and now an adviser for the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness in Washington. “I think it’s going to increase costs.”

Tozzi, president of Multinational Business Services Inc. of Washington, added, “The American public is going to have a lot more service and a better product,” but that takes cash.

The public likely won’t immediately switch to online transactions simply because they’re available, leaving agencies to budget for both Web and manual processes for a possibly long transition period, said Mark Luttner, director of the Office of Information Collection at the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We are going to be in the mode of doing things both ways,” he said. “All of the agencies using electronic dockets are maintaining paper dockets out of necessity.”

EPA last year began offering electronic reporting for its Toxic Release Inventory program, Luttner added. Out of 20,000 reporting companies, 10 percent initially began using the online service.

Luttner said the agency’s working on bringing that up to 90 percent, which “will take some years.” But 100 percent, he said, may be an impractical goal.

Another agency official suggested that the biggest cost savings might stem from time saved—but no by the government.

“The key metric is time saved,” said Ron Miller, assistant administrator for e-government at the Small Business Administration.

He said his staff has estimated that businesses could save $58 million annually by filling out joint forms for state registration and employee identification numbers online at SBA’s Business One-Stop portal. The portal could also save the trucking industry $400 million a year, according to early estimates, he said.

But Tozzi said agency budgets may not necessarily be the beneficiaries of those dollars. “There may be savings, no doubt, but it won’t be in the appropriations accounts,” he said. “It will be a person saving time filling out forms.”

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