E-Gov at Five Years, Part Four: Mixed Results

By Daniel Pulliam

August 31, 2006

While several of the Office of Management and Budget e-government projects have been unqualified success stories, others are still struggling to produce meaningful results.

The Internal Revenue Service's Free File program, which allows taxpayers to prepare and file their taxes online free of charge, was used to file more than 70 million tax returns in 2006. The consolidation of agency payroll systems under the e-gov umbrella has changed the way many agencies pay their employees.

By contrast, the Social Security Administration's eVital electronic death registration initiative is still in its developmental phase. Agency officials refused to comment on it because "it is too early to discuss details," said agency spokeswoman Kia Green, even though five years have passed since OMB announced that it would be part of its e-government effort.

The General Services Administration's federal asset sales project and the Homeland Security Department's disaster management also have yet to reach fruition.

With respect to the e-gov initiative in general, "there is frustration both at the agencies and on the Hill that no demonstrable reduction of cost or increase in service has been demonstrated," said a former federal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Projects paid for and managed by single agencies have been more successful than those that have relied on OMB's interagency funding concept, colloquially known as "pass the hat." The latter approach has run into repeated roadblocks in the appropriations process on Capitol Hill.

As a result, sources said, agency priorities have shifted from the e-gov effort to other OMB mandates, such as cybersecurity compliance and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, which requires the adoption of new identity cards for federal employees and contractors.

Several of the more successful projects, such as GSA's eTravel service, the IRS's Free File project and the Interior Department's Recreation.gov Web site, already were in the development phase when OMB reclassified them as e-gov projects under the president's initiative.

A senior OMB official said the initiatives face the greatest resistance when agency managers become concerned that they will result in a loss of funding and authority. The more wide-ranging and complex that e-government projects are -- and thus the most in need of interagency support -- the harder they are to pull off.

The Health and Human Services Department's Grants.gov project, for example, set out to establish a system under which people can apply for all manner of federal grants on a single Web site. That process involved merging agencies' different business processes, definitions and application requirements, said HHS Chief Information Officer Charles Havekost.

On a "philosophical level," it has been difficult for agencies to learn to "accept information through the same process that other agencies were using, when most agencies perceived that their business process were specific to them," Havekost said.

The Small Business Administration's Business Gateway initiative, with a relatively small annual budget of $1 million, started out seeking to centralize access to more than 6,000 agency forms and other legal and regulatory information on a single Web site.

Nancy Sternberg, Business Gateway's program manager, said the Business.gov Web site is gearing up for a relaunch in early to mid October that will focus more narrowly on the needs of businesses to comply with federal regulations. More than 100 government organizations will be contributing information to the site in an effort to create a one-stop resource for businesses.

GSA's Federal Asset Sales site was intended as a governmentwide portal for sales of excess property, but the project struggled to move forward as logistics proved difficult. It, too, is due for a relaunch in October with a new focus on setting up sales centers within agencies that already are well established in selling excess government property.

Interior's Recreation.gov 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 in contract protests.

By Daniel Pulliam

August 31, 2006