Not enough e-gov cash to go around

Bush's egov funding plan has been well received by government tech leaders hungry for dollars

In the three weeks since he disclosed it, the president's plan for a $10 million electronic government fund has proven enormously popular.

Calls are stacked up on the answering machines at the Office of Management and Budget from federal agency officials eager to lay claim to some of the cash.

"People are coming out of the woodwork," exclaimed Jasmeet Seehra of the OMB's information policy and technology branch. But the rules governing who will qualify for funding are strict, she warned.

For starters, projects must "operate across agency boundaries." A single-agency project will get no money from the e-government fund.

Projects also must "build off the foundation of essential building blocks" of electronic government, or they won't qualify for money from the e-government fund. One such "building block," for example, is the federal Internet portal Firstgov.

In his budget last month, President Bush listed some projects that would be worthy of support from the e-government fund. They include efforts to develop public-key infrastructure for secure online communications, and projects that help agencies eliminate paperwork by putting information and transactions online by the October 2003, deadline set in the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

In addition, to merit funding, projects must be new initiatives, not ongoing programs, Seehra said. And they will have to pass stringent cost vs. performance tests. Bush said in his blueprint, "making good on those promises—not just making promises—will be the standard of this administration."

Bush's plan calls for an e-government fund starting at $10 million in 2002 and growing to $100 million to be spent over the next three years. "That's not a lot of money," said William Early, chief financial officer of the General Services Administration. Even when added to the money now available for interagency projects, the total falls far short of the need.

"Funding is always an issue," Early said. The federal CIO Council sought $37 million for interagency projects in 2002 but was limited by OMB to $17 million which will have to be raised by "passing the hat" among agencies, he said.

A chronic shortage of money for e-government projects has forced project managers to resort to some creative financing techniques. For example, "It's better sometimes to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. You can get more done," said Gary Krump, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and material management at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Another tactic is to extend pilot programs until they become permanent.

Seehra, Early and Krump spoke during March 21 appearances at the Federal Office Systems Exposition in Washington, D.C.

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