OMB must sell e-gov to new 'in' party

Uncertainty hangs over how House Democrats will deal with ongoing IT issues

If the White House couldn’t sell e-government to its own party on the Hill, what chance will officials have now that the Democrats control Congress?

Actually, according to industry observers and former government officials, it could be a pretty good chance. But the window of opportunity could be small, and open for only a short time.

“It all depends on how much [the Democrats] want to play ball with the White House,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation of Washington. “I could see them being more supportive of e-government. ... Democrats have a stronger stake in making government work, they’re the party of government, and they want it to work.”

But Atkinson and others say OMB has to demonstrate—now more than ever—that e-government programs will truly result in the efficiencies and cost savings they project.

If not, agencies, with the end of the Bush administration looming, could dig in and wait for the next White House to pursue its management agenda, experts say.

Competing signals

“The overall story line [from this election] is that the administration has to obtain support from Congress” for its e-government agenda, said Jonathon Bruel, a senior fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government. “Without that support, agencies are going to become distracted from competing signals from the Hill.”

A former CIO under the Bush administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed. “Agencies will feel empowered to drag their feet and wait for the administration to croak,” the official said, adding that complying with the President’s Management Agenda scorecard will not be a priority.

One initial hurdle e-government faces is that it is not a top priority for the new Congress. With Democrats proposing an ambitious agenda focusing on the Iraq war, health care, homeland security and the 9/11 Commission reforms, and labor issues, e-government and other IT issues are not high on the list.

“I think [Congress is] going to go after the war big time,” the former CIO said. “The absence of thought about [IT issues] from Democrats leads me to think that their thoughts are somewhere else. IT and e-government just won’t be a focus.”

For its part, OMB is optimistic.

“Both sides of the aisle share our goal of improving program performance and agency management,” said OMB spokeswoman Andrea Wuebker. “We will continue to work with Democrats and Republicans to achieve this goal through the implementation of the President’s Management Agenda.”

At this point, though, it is unclear whether the Democratic takeover of Congress will be a blessing or a curse for OMB’s e-government agenda.

While observers anticipate new Democratic committee leaders, such as expected House Government Reform Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), to be highly critical and suspicious of any White House initiative, they also note that much of the congressional opposition to e-government has come from the president’s own party.

This could provide OMB an intriguing opportunity to sell its agenda to a Democratic Congress that may have more support for such citizen-centric ideas, observers said.

Atkinson and others noted that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was one of the chief proponents of the E-Government Act of 2002 and was the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee when Congress passed the bill. He’s projected to resume chairmanship of that committee.

“I’d expect considerable continuity in the Senate if Lieberman takes over as chairman,” IBM’s Bruel said. “He’s had a long-standing support for e-government.”

But while the transition could be smooth in the Senate, the House is another story. Current chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), who ushered the e-government law through the House, has been one of the initiative’s biggest and loudest champions, while Waxman, as ranking member, has been largely silent on IT issues, observers say.

“I don’t think IT will receive the same level of attention [in the House] as it did under Davis,” the former CIO said. “I think Waxman’s focus will turn more toward policy and less toward technology.”

In fact, this official said committee Democrats were not all that visible during hearings on technology and security issues.

On the horizon

Also due to change is the oversight of OMB’s Financial Management Line of Business initiative, currently under Rep. Todd Platts (R-Ohio), chairman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance and Accountability. The ranking member of the subcommittee is Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.).

At this point, Waxman has not formulated an agenda for IT matters such as e-government and data security, a Government Reform Committee staff member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, adding that the incoming chairman will work closely with Davis to address these concerns.

Perhaps the only sure thing about the new Congress’ IT agenda is that it will be some time before it’s sorted out. The change in power means new committee chairmen, assignments and, perhaps, oversight responsibilities have to be named—all before any committee can hold its first hearing.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, an industry trade group in Arlington, Va., remembers how the Republicans, when they took the House in 1994, dramatically reshaped Congress’ focus.

“There was a major reorganization among the committees,” she said. “They changed some of the committees and subcommittees, so some of the subcommittees in the Government Reform Committee could change” under Democratic leadership.

“It could be until February until everything is set,” she said.

But for the first time under the Bush administration, Congress, not the White House, will likely be setting the direction.

“It will be interesting to watch,” said the former CIO. “I don’t think the president is driving the agenda anymore.”

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