E-Gov at Five Years, Part Five: Pushing Forward
Since taking over the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology at the Office of Management and Budget in September 2003, Karen Evans has overseen a priority shift from the original set of individual e-government projects to a broad consolidation of agencies' back-office systems.
Despite a mixed record in implementing the original initiatives, OMB officials said three years ago that it was time to move on to other areas with potential for reducing duplicative agency systems and thus increasing efficiency.
That effort, known as the "lines of business" initiative, is an aggressive attempt to consolidate the computer systems that operate everything from human resources operations to financial management systems. John Marshall, vice president of CGI Federal, an IT services company in Fairfax, Va., that's involved in the financial management effort, said such initiatives are the next step in the evolution of e-government.
But with the clock ticking on President Bush's second term, OMB's ability to influence Congress and to command agencies' attention to push the new approach is waning.
Some of the nine lines of business initiatives are pushing original e-gov projects in new directions.
For example, the Grants.gov project started as an effort to give citizens a single site for finding and applying for federal grants. But officials now question whether each agency needs its own system for managing the grants process, said Charles Havekost, chief information officer at the Health and Human Services Department and one of the leading players in the launch of Grants.gov.
Through OMB's grants management line of business, of which Havekost is co-chairman, the agency hopes to leverage existing agency grants management systems, making them available to other agencies to use. Since there are few commercial off-the-shelf grant management applications, agencies typically have had to issue expensive contracts for customized systems, Havekost said.
Evans says e-gov nirvana will arrive when federal managers and executives start identifying cross-agency opportunities for improving citizen services and efficiency by themselves.
For example, she said, the idea to create a line of business around budget formulation and execution came from the federal Budget Officers Advisory Council, not technologists.
"We were like, 'Great,'" Evans said. "So we made the recommendation going forward … but they volunteered. That wasn't us saying, 'Hey, it'd be great if we had a budget line of business.' "
As another example of a cross-agency effort, Evans cites a proposal from a bipartisan group of senators to create a Google-like search engine for tracking more than $1 trillion in government contracts, grants, earmarks and loans.
The bill (S.2590), proposed by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Barack Obama, D-Ill.; among others, is awaiting a Senate vote. Evans said the vision aligns with the Bush administration's philosophy to avoid creating "one big database in the sky" and to focus on reaching out and gathering information from existing systems.
William Eggers, author of the book Government 2.0 and director of the public sector arm of Deloitte Research, said OMB's focus on the lines of business initiatives is just another stage in the development of e-government.
"It shows how an [information technology initiative] has become embedded into a major part of the business functions of government," Eggers said. "We have moved to this tactical stage over the last few years and a lot of it has been more back-office driven and focused around reducing cost."
But at the same time, e-gov still needs to be forefront, focusing on the country's major concerns, to help encourage people understand technology's transformative abilities, Eggers said.
While the Bush administration has emphasized the extent to which technology can change the delivery of health care, there is much more that could be done in transportation, education and other key policy areas, Eggers said.
"That's where you need to recapture people's imagination," he said. "Get the IT folks reattached to the policy people to show that technology-enabled transformation goes beyond putting a service on the Web or back office improvements."