E-Gov at Five Years, Part Two: Waiting for Success

Nearly five years after the Bush administration announced that its electronic government program would revolutionize federal operations, the initiatives have had varying levels of success.

Several of the technology projects are outright success stories, genuinely improving federal services online and easing their delivery. The Interior Department's Recreation.gov Web site has been acclaimed for centralizing park information, and the Labor Department's GovBenefits.gov site has drawn praise for centralizing federal benefit information.

But others are stagnating under agency resistance, legal challenges and congressional concern.

The Office of Management and Budget's original e-government plan promised to boost productivity, eliminate redundant systems and improve the quality of service provided by agencies within 24 months. OMB's proposal cut across nearly every federal agency and included partnerships with state and local governments.

Mark Forman, then OMB's administrator for e-government and IT, assured lawmakers in March 2002 that the e-government projects would unify government operations around citizens' needs and create "an order of magnitude improvement in efficiency and effectiveness."

That vision has yet to be fully realized. But a senior OMB official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the next six months will bring more dramatic improvements. The official said that over the past five years, the initiatives have made the transition from concepts and ideas to fully deployed systems.

Still, several e-government projects are suffering from funding shortages, legal disputes, challenges in implementation and a lack of agency commitment, according to several sources. For example, the General Services Administration's Federal Asset Sales project is undergoing a relaunch, as is the Small Business Administration's Business Gateway initiative. The Homeland Security Department's disaster management system, a digital communications tool used to support hurricane response, has run into opposition within the department and has faced repeated cancellation attempts.

Implementing e-government hasn't been easy, concedes Karen Evans, who succeeded Forman in September 2003. "The area where we could improve is our ability to execute out on what we want to achieve," Evans said.

One problem, she said, is that agency officials are sometimes emotionally attached to the IT projects they created before the e-gov initiatives were launched.

"When you've put together bits and pieces and it works and your users are happy, that is the best thing that can ever happen to you as a technologist," Evans said. "And then you have somebody else come along and say … 'Hey, guess what? What you did -- it's not good enough.' "

But it's OMB's job to remind others of the government's long-range goals, which might clash with agencies' short-term efforts, Evans said. And in the end, the e-government projects provide a real benefit to agencies by making their work easier and improving citizen services, she argued.

Observers of the e-gov effort say another problem is that many of the projects don't have a direct impact on a large number of Americans, so there is little political urgency about pursuing them. Of the original 24 e-gov initiatives, only five dealt specifically with service to citizens. None of the highly touted "lines of business" initiatives launched more recently deal with direct citizen interaction with government.

Congressional appropriators have repeatedly slashed or blocked funding for e-gov projects. For example, lawmakers consistently have refused to support the White House's annual request for $45 million, including $40 million in excess GSA money, to finance the administration's e-gov fund, instead doling out $3 million to $5 million every year.

Aside from a handful of members of Congress, including House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman and ranking member Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., support from lawmakers has been lacking.

That just shows that "government management is not sexy," said Forman, who is now a partner at consulting firm KPMG. "There is no big interest group out there saying we have got to modernize the government until there is a crisis."

While the ability of Internet-based technologies to reduce government inefficiency and improve agency services sounds grand, the reality is that e-gov has taken a back seat to more pressing requirements, such as fighting two wars, over the past five years.

Still, Evans said, it's hard to find anyone who doesn't agree with the basic goals of the e-gov movement. Now, she said, it's just a matter of sending the message that "this is a holistic program about improving services to the citizen, services to business and services internally within the government."

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