The Battle for E-Government

OMB and Congress clash over funding IT projects.

When Office of Management and Budget officials tagged two dozen federal projects to become part of the Bush administration's new electronic government effort in late 2001, they weren't shy about pushing their goals. Information technology initiatives, such as the Disaster Management first-responder program and electronic Social Security registration, would fundamentally change the way government operates, they proclaimed. But congressional appropriators aren't buying the message.

Language in several fiscal 2007 appropriations bills strikes potential blows against e-government. In a report on the House's version of the fiscal 2007 Transportation-Treasury appropriations measure, legislators ripped e-government. "Many aspects of the initiative are fundamentally flawed, contradict underlying program statutory requirements and have stifled innovation by forcing conformity to an arbitrary government standard," the report stated.

E-government projects have failed to perform well, mandated unwanted technology initiatives and violated the constitutionally designated funding authority held by the legislative branch, critics say.

E-government proponents say some projects ran into problems because of lack of funding. Administration officials, agency IT managers and observers describe this as a pivotal point for e-government, and OMB is working frantically to secure its future.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has written the most restrictive e-government language yet. The fiscal 2007 Science-State-Justice-Commerce appropriations bill provides no money for the e-government programs. Initiatives can be funded only if an agency submits a detailed cost-benefit analysis and a request to reprogram funds from other parts of its operation.

Such heavy resistance from Congress came as an unexpected jolt to OMB. But maybe it shouldn't have. At the core of the funding debate is a basic disagreement over who has the power to manage the way federal agencies do business. Appropriators say the Constitution gives them the power to fund, so they're in charge. OMB officials maintain they're the supervisors of day-to-day agency operations.

Appropriators fume at the notion that OMB could order agencies under their purview to pay for projects led by other agencies. It usurps the role of appropriator, they say. Some agency officials also fail to share OMB's enthusiasm for what some call a "pass-the-hat" funding model. The result: E-government is in serious trouble.

Karen Evans, OMB administrator for e-government and IT, says her agency is working hard to improve its relationship with appropriations committees. In an attempt to allay congressional concerns, OMB instructed agencies to submit data documenting savings associated with their initiatives by Sept. 30. But the unprecedented swath of documents detailing the cost-effectiveness of e-government has been met on Capitol Hill with a shrug. House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield called OMB's recent efforts "classic oversell."

A Senate Appropriations Committee staffer says OMB is trying to sell e-government projects based on savings estimates that are questionable at best. "I'm not going to put $1 million into something if I'm only going to get $750,000 out of it," the staffer says. "I just want to know that the agencies under the [subcommittee] chairman's control are benefiting from them, and it doesn't just provide a press release for OMB."

Skepticism isn't coming just from the Hill. In 2003, Linda Koontz, director of information management at the Government Accountability Office, called the Office of Personnel Management's claim that its e-government initiatives would save $2.7 billion over their lifetime unrealistic.

But focusing solely on cost savings misses the point, says Evans. Business cases show the benefits of improved services without additional cost, she says. In the short run, e-government is expensive, but once completed, the theory goes, agencies have more functionality for fewer dollars. "There is an increased cost right now as you're building out," Evans says. "Technically . . . that's not cost savings. But now you have an intangible benefit to the citizen for a brand-new service."

Fits and Starts

Some e-government projects, including the consolidation of agency payroll systems and Recruitment One-Stop for federal job seekers, have success stories. But others struggle to produce meaningful results. The Interior Department's project involved consolidating federal park information on a single easy-to-navigate Web site. But the effort to consolidate reservation booking systems has been held up by contract protests. Projects at the Social Security Administration, General Services Administration and Small Business Administration were stalled pending significant revisions.

The Social Security Administration's eVital electronic birth and death information registration initiative is still in its developmental phase. "It is too early to discuss details," says spokeswoman Kia Green, even though five years have passed since OMB first announced it. GSA's federal asset sales project, designed to centralize the sale of excess government property, was recently relaunched. The SBA's Business Gateway initiative, which will provide a central access point for regulatory information, was revamped this fall. It's still unclear whether e-government projects will become core functions of agency operations or be pushed to the wayside in 2009 as political remnants of the second Bush administration.

Some agencies are resisting OMB efforts to replace in-house systems with multiagency programs. Disaster Management, a first-responder interoperability project, has been the center of controversy among the Homeland Security Department, OMB and the Defense Department, where the project originated. DHS, now the lead agency, decided in August not to spend the $5.3 million set aside for the project. Observers wonder what would keep other agencies from following suit and pulling out of e-government initiatives.

Turf Wars

Executing what OMB wants to achieve with e-government hasn't been easy, Evans admits. One problem, she says, is agency officials sometimes are emotionally attached to the IT projects they created. "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 says. "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 government's long-range goals, which might clash with agencies' short-term efforts, Evans says.

The greatest resistance comes from agency managers who are concerned about losing funding and authority, says a senior OMB official. The more wide-ranging and complex the e-government project-and thus the most in need of interagency support-the harder it is to pull off, the official says.

"There is frustration both at the agencies and on the Hill that no demonstrable reduction of cost or increase in service has been demonstrated," says a former federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Consequently, some agencies have shifted priorities away from e-government. OMB is sticking to its guns, but disagreement over power of the purse won't go away anytime soon. Completing the e-government vision within the final two years of the Bush administration seems doubtful.

Wired for Cash

Agency spending on e-government has grown with the development of projects, but congressional appropriators are threatening to tighten the purse strings.

FY 2003 $177.6 mil
FY 2004 $226.8 mil
FY 2005 $259.5 mil
FY 2006 $425.5 mil

Source: Office of Management and Budget

Where the Money Goes

E-government initiatives in fiscal 2006 fell into six categories of agency operations.

Government to Government $68.7 mil
Internal Efficiency
And Effectiveness
$60.1 mil
Government to Business $26.2 mil
Government to Citizen $14.1 mil
Lines of Business $13.3 mil
E-Authentication $10.5 mil
Total: $192.9 mil

Source: Office of Management and Budget

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