E-gov agenda takes shape

E-Government Act promotes Web standards, procurement reform, security policies

In one of the most dramatic changes in information technology policy since the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, President Bush is expected to sign into law this week the E-Government Act of 2002, which lays out the rules of engagement for agencies providing information and services online.

The bill affects nearly every aspect of IT management and rules. It defines e-government and its basic parameters — from Web sites for managing crises, to electronic archives and directories that give the public a road map to government information. For the first time, lawmakers earmarked money — $345 million during four years — to fund e-government programs.

The legislation also extends existing rules for security, outlines new initiatives for training the federal government's IT workforce and creates new buying rules to help drive down the cost of IT.

"It is one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed since Clinger-Cohen," said David McClure, vice president for e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government. "It covers so many angles of information that it goes beyond many of the other pieces of legislation."

The Clinger-Cohen Act aimed to end years of poor federal IT management and billions of dollars of cost overruns in IT systems development.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who pushed for passage of many key provisions in the new bill, said the e-government act will "revolutionize Americans' relationship with their government.... The Web-savvy citizen of the 21st century is accustomed to the standard of service on commercial Web sites and will accept nothing less from government sites."

Turning Up the Volume

The bill, which comes more than a year after the Bush administration launched its 24 e-government initiatives, does not stake out new territory, federal IT experts said. Instead, it provides a formal management structure for a disparate array of e-government concepts and initiatives. "It is an accelerator," McClure said. "It really is broadening citizen interaction and access to government."

As expected, the bill calls for the creation of a permanent position in the Office of Management and Budget for an e-government administrator, appointed by the president, to develop policies related to e-government. The role is similar to the one played by Mark Forman, OMB's associate director for IT and e-government.

Some e-government projects are already under way, from e-grants to e-filing, as part of the administration's 24 e-government initiatives. But the bill will give those projects greater vitality and more velocity, according to experts.

"The e-Grants initiative is currently funded by 11 partner agencies and how the [e-gov] bill...is going to impact us will be determined by the setup of the electronic government office," said Diana King, who is detailed to e-Grants Program Management Office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Reflecting the revolution in online services both in the government and the private sector, the bill also imposes discipline and standards on the haphazard universe of government information on the Internet, where more than 24,000 federal Web sites reside.

One provision requires that all of the information agencies publish in the Federal Register also must be posted on the agency's Web site, where the public can more easily find it.

The bill also requires that an interagency committee develop standards establishing how government information is organized and categorized so that it can be searched electronically across agencies.

The idea is to ensure that agencies provide at least a basic level of essential information to the public via the Internet, said Melissa Wojciak, staff director of the House Government Reform Committee's Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee, which Davis chairs.

It also calls for building a federal Internet portal as a single point from which citizens can access all government information and services. FirstGov serves that purpose now but is not as comprehensive or user-friendly as the portal envisioned for the future, said Kevin Landy, who was involved in drafting the E-Government Act for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Owen Unangst, the e-government coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the Agriculture Department, said the bill bolsters the USDA's Web efforts to automate certain functions.

"My agency has recognized that there's a certain part of agriculture that still needs to have a face-to-face approach, but there's definitely a growing desire to do more self-service work," Unangst added.

Buying Power

Lawmakers also used the bill to support other IT initiatives, including a long-fought effort to allow state and local governments to buy products and services through General Services Administration schedule contracts.

Davis and other lawmakers have been pushing this concept, known as cooperative purchasing, since the mid-1990s as a way to increase the volume of GSA schedule business, potentially lowering prices for federal agencies and giving state and local agencies easier access to IT products.

Davis spokesman Dave Marin said e-government transformation cannot happen without state and local governments.

"Cooperative purchasing is an invaluable tool that gives state and locals access to contracting vehicles that let them acquire the latest IT products in the world," Marin said.

Nevertheless, the verdict from states is still out on whether they want the option, according to Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, a Washington, D.C., industry group.

Some states, he said, require that all purchases come from businesses within their borders. Others, such as North Carolina, have found that the federal schedules often "do not represent the best value," said John Leaston, North Carolina's state purchasing officer.

"Over time, our competitive bidding process has demonstrated that we can get better prices," he said.

Another Davis provision in the bill promotes the use of share-in-savings contracts, in which a vendor forgoes some upfront payment in exchange for a share of the savings realized by using an IT solution. With a five-year contract, an agency will have 10 years to pay off a vendor for services, using the money saved from more efficient solutions.

"It has the potential for having a much higher return on investment," said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. "You can really make a profit if it works."

The e-government bill, like the homeland security bill signed last week, includes two initiatives aimed at improving security. It incorporates the Federal Information Security Management Act, which extends the Government Information Security Reform Act of 2000. GISRA combined many federal security policies into one law and mandated an annual assessment to track compliance.

The two laws also give the National Institute for Standards and Technology a potentially larger role in setting security policy.

Diane Frank and William Matthews contributed to this story.

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