E-gov revolution transforms federal operations

By John Trattner

November 29, 2000

Begun with the emergence of the personal computer in the 1980s, exploded by the Internet into a radical, ongoing transformation of society in the late 1990s, the information technology revolution will by the middle of the current decade largely transfigure government as well. The Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1998 ordered the federal government to put all its services and transactions online by 2003. Responding, the Clinton administration in December 1999 issued a series of presidential executive orders. In the language of these directives, the aim was to harness IT as "a powerful tool for tackling some of our toughest social challenges as well as fostering economic growth." They assigned a number of general tasks to the federal government as a whole and particular responsibilities to specific agencies. The intended scope of the orders is evident in some of their language-for example, in making public access to government information and services easier: "Each agency shall permit greater access to its officials by creating a public electronic mail address through which citizens can contact the agency with questions, comments, or concerns....The secretaries of Health and Human Services, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Agriculture, the Commissioner of Social Security, and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, working closely with other federal agencies that provide benefit assistance to citizens, shall make a broad range of benefits and services available though private and secure electronic use of the Internet....To the maximum extent possible, departments and agencies to make available online, by December 2000, the forms needed for the top government services used by the public. "...in government's purchasing functions: "Promote the use of electronic commerce for faster, cheaper ordering on federal procurements that will result in savings to the taxpayer. "...and in protecting privacy: "Agencies shall continue to build good privacy practices into their web sites by posting privacy policies." To be sure, elements of local, state, and federal government are already doing some of this. The Department of Agriculture used the Internet to get public comments on organic food standards. Though it cost several hundred thousand dollars, this exercise opened up the rule-making process. It drew 400,000 hits on the department's Web site, whose creative design allowed people everywhere to comment, see other comments, and build on the comments without having to come to Washington and plow through all the paperwork. Again, the director of a large organization within an agency reports that "information technology and especially web technology are extremely powerful ways to reach various constituency groups and get information out. It's really paid off for us." The undersecretary of Commerce who runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes IT as "probably the biggest thing affecting us." His agency has about a thousand Web pages--such as weather.gov--where anyone interested can find the latest information on everything from solar flares to global warming. The more NOAA puts on its Web site, he says, the more people are interested in it. For this senior appointee, information technology is "the big growth area of the future. The electronic world is the one that's going to drive us the most." A former high-level official in the federal procurement community points out that many agencies are putting their requests for bid proposals on the net. An increasing exchange of information between government and vendors is taking place on the net, he adds, and it's a place "where the folks on the front lines-particularly the eighteen-year-olds-are coming up with a lot of interesting ideas." His advice: "Ask your human resources people for the names of the ten, fifteen, or one hundred youngest employees in the organization. Send them all an e-mail, invite them to a brown-bag lunch. The purpose is for them to give you ideas about how you can use the Web better in your agency." Despite encouraging examples of what's already being achieved, most newly arriving presidential appointees will find their agencies up to their elbows in the job of moving toward those e-government objectives mandated in 1999. It is a tough road to travel, one for which executive branch agencies are not now technically well prepared. In a speech in March 2000, David Walker, comptroller general of the United States and boss of the General Accounting Office, noted that government "is no longer the primary innovator in the area of information technology" (as it was, for example, in developing the Internet's precursors). "Many current government IT systems are outdated and not integrated," Walker said. "In addition, we have an overload of information and a lack of knowledge. Government faces a number of internal skills gaps as well as a lack of effective contractor oversight." A major effort has been under way, meanwhile, aimed at drawing an organized, disciplined, across-the-board blueprint to help the federal government achieve the objectives set out by the paperwork reduction legislation and the executive orders that followed. Those mandates created an exceptionally strong framework for this initiative, which began in late 1999 under the auspices of the Council for Excellence in Government and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. Both organizations recognized that the multi-layered complexity of the transformation to e-government poses formidable questions of scope, scale, philosophy, and technology, to name but a few. They saw clearly that the best answers lay with the public and private players who will drive the change¾business, government, civic groups, and the research community. These groups, they believed, were best equipped to produce the expertly designed, comprehensive, collaborative approach that a task of these dimensions demands. It was abundantly clear that other advantages for government could accrue from an effective move to full electronic capability: for example, a reinvigoration of the federal civil service, fueled by the development of an IT work force of high quality. Many additional potential benefits were visible in a government that could commune directly, instantly, and continuously with individual people, with business, with government at other levels, and with itself. In November 1999 the Council's Intergovernmental Technology Leadership Consortium and NPR convened a cross-sector symposium of electronic commerce and information technology leaders from government, industry, academic institutions, and the research sector. Examining with experienced eyes the nature of the e-government challenge and how to meet it, they set out four areas--transformation, roles, infrastructure, and information--in which the design should proceed. In March, joined now by the National Science Foundation, the initiative formed four corresponding working groups to set objectives, identify barriers, and shape specific options for the action recommendations, to be offered by the Council publicly in the fall of 2000 to the country's newly elected presidential and congressional leadership. It's useful to look briefly at what these groups think e-government should look like. It would be citizen-driven and user-friendly, organized according to how people use it, not how agencies manage it. Full e-government would not merely supply information online, but also allow users to complete transactions and interact with their government. It would be accessible to everybody, anywhere, and at any time, and not just to people on the near side of the well-named digital divide. E-government would be designed, created, and maintained through cooperation between the public and private sectors. It would be innovative, encouraging the advance of new technology and applications, and cost effective, secure, and private. Finally, e-government offers a clear opportunity to close in on two goals that are as elusive as they are crucial. First, to rekindle the interest of young Americans in government and public service by making government completely accessible to them¾expanding their understanding and appreciation of it and making it more meaningful and real. Second, to revitalize American democracy by narrowing the factual and psychological gaps between government and people and engaging millions more of them in the democratic process. To underscore the urgency here, the government blueprint outlined above will include recommendations for top executive leadership that is strongly attuned to these goals and for the selection of cabinet and agency chiefs who are able and ready to lead the charge toward full e-government within their organizations. No matter which route government follows toward these objectives, agency chief information officers will be among the key figures charged with stewarding the change at the leadership and policy levels, not just at the technical level. Their jobs are examined in detail in another section of this book. But make no mistake: It is agency political leadership that, besides overseeing the problem solving, will have to spearhead the charge, cutting through the barriers of turf and entrenched attitudes and habits to make electronic government the full-fledged reality that the country, its economy, and its people need.

By John Trattner

November 29, 2000

http://www.govexec.com/federal-news/2000/11/e-gov-revolution-transforms-federal-operations/8066/