Agencies urged not to sell e-gov projects as cost-cutters

The real value of electronic government projects lies in how they make federal services more accessible to the public, not in the cost savings they may generate, experts said at a technology forum Tuesday.

In fact, successful e-government projects might end up costing taxpayers money, said Jim Tozzi, an adviser at the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, an independent watchdog group established in 1996. Good e-government projects will stimulate more public interest in services provided by federal agencies, increasing the demand for such services, Tozzi said. Agencies may need additional financial resources to meet the demand.

Mark Forman, administrator of e-government and information technology at the Office of Management and Budget, has pitched e-government projects as a means of saving the government money by streamlining technical processes and eliminating duplicative computer systems. OMB would like to have 80 percent of its 24 e-government projects up and running by July 1, Forman said in April.

But Tozzi and officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Small Business Administration told participants in Tuesday's forum, organized by the Council for Excellence in Government, that e-government projects require continued investment in order to succeed. If agencies attempt to justify additional funding by claiming e-government will save taxpayers money, they risk sliding down a "slippery slope," Tozzi said.

Even if e-government projects do save money by eliminating duplication and making government transactions more efficient, the savings may be hard for agencies to document in a way that satisfies executive branch officials and lawmakers. It's hard to separate benefits gained through technological improvements from those achieved as a result of policy changes or other means, Tozzi said. Attempts to do so might understate the value of e-government sites.

Mark Luttner, director of information collection at EPA, said his agency, which is participating in at least half of OMB's e-government initiatives, has had trouble documenting savings. For example, the agency has not been able to calculate whether a system that allows states and businesses to submit regulatory forms electronically has any financial benefits.

After five years, 23 states are using the system, Luttner said. But laws do not require states and businesses to file forms electronically, and many still choose to use paper. As a result, EPA ends up operating two systems for processing regulatory forms, cutting into the savings electronic submissions generate.

This does not necessarily make e-gov efforts less valuable, or unworthy of funding, Luttner said. EPA's project still serves to facilitate faster and more efficient information exchanges between the agency and various stakeholders, he said.

Ron Miller, assistant administrator for e-government at SBA, said he sees e-government as a way to save time for the small businesses his agency serves. Through its One-Stop Business Compliance initiative, SBA plans to offer entrepreneurs access to the information they need to start a business-and the government forms they need to fill out. Often small businesses lack the staff to research regulations and complete piles of paperwork, Miller said.

SBA has started measuring the success of its e-government project in terms of time saved, rather than money, Miller said. But that approach doesn't necessary help when it comes to making the case for additional funding.

"Everybody wants their savings now," Miller said. But savings are unlikely to materialize quickly, no matter how many duplicative processes are eliminated, he said. "I think the act of trying to eliminate redundancy will keep people employed for a long time."

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