E-gov projects face struggle for full funding

The electronic government bill President Bush signed Tuesday authorizes hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on interagency e-gov initiatives, but now agencies must convince congressional appropriators that such projects deserve the full level of funding authorized in the legislation.

Compared with the approximately $50 billion the government spends on information technology annually, the $345 million authorized in H.R. 2458 over the next four years seems minimal. But David McClure, vice president of e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said at a press conference Wednesday that the amount is actually substantial. Most of the roughly $50 billion in total annual IT spending goes toward maintenance of existing computer systems, he noted, leaving only a small pool of money for new projects.

Council President Patricia McGinnis praised the e-government bill for granting interagency e-government projects extra funding, but mentioned one possible catch: Agencies accustomed to working in independent "stovepipes" may have a hard time achieving the level of collaboration necessary to convince congressional appropriators to approve the full $345 million authorized.

The bill requires the Office of Management and Budget to distribute money in the e-government fund among a variety of interagency projects. Appropriators are used to dividing up funds to programs within single agencies, as opposed to approving general pots of money for interagency initiatives, McGinnis said.

In addition, appropriators are more likely to give the full amount of the money authorized to projects that have already shown impressive results, she said. These two factors make it especially important for agencies to present a united front when making a case for the full $345 million.

"The case has to be made for making these investments across agency lines," McGinnis said. "This does fly in the face of the more programmatic appropriations process."

OMB will also face the task of ensuring that none of the e-government projects duplicate one another and convincing appropriators that funds are not being wasted on redundant efforts, McGinnis said.

David Marin, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a co-sponsor of the e-government bill, said he is optimistic that interagency projects will receive the $345 million authorized over the next four years. The legislation sends appropriators a clear message that Congress and the Bush administration care about e-government and have made it a high priority, putting more pressure on them to grant the full funding, he said. Also, the bill establishes an Office of Electronic Government within OMB, and assigns an administrator to oversee the office. This office and administrator should create an extra level of trust that the e-government fund will be managed responsibly, Marin said. McClure said the establishment of the office is one of the bill's most significant achievements, and predicted that the administrator will become a "focal point of accountability" for e-government project management.

Also, the bill fosters partnerships between the government and the private sector, partly by requiring agencies to post changes in regulatory requirements online, making the regulatory process more "visible and dynamic," McClure said.

But the legislation also holds businesses more accountable for results by advocating a contracting approach in which firms share in any savings generated in the course of completing a project. This "ups the ante" on partnerships by making businesses assume some of the risks of the technology implementation process, McClure said.

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