The Early Internet Years in Government Are a Model For Fostering Innovation

It’s critical to begin with a compelling vision for how life could be made better for the end user.

Not having a technology background, I had little appreciation for just how cutting edge we were in the 1990s at the National Performance Review, Vice President Al Gore’s reinventing government initiative. But I readily understood the power of letting innovators stretch their imaginations.

In the summer of 1993, I was sitting on my front porch editing, with pen and paper, a draft developed by the team that was writing the NPR report and recommendations for Reengineering Through Information Technology. Grumbling, I kept striking out “the spiderweb” and inserted “the Internet.” The term “Web” hadn’t entered common vocabulary yet, but I clearly lost that editing battle in the long run.

More importantly that summer, the Clinton administration (led by the vice president, the Commerce secretary, the Office of Management and Budget, and NPR) had agreed that the government should not “own” or “regulate” the emerging Internet. This policy helped pave the way for innovation in the years that followed and the massive expansion for the Internet’s place today at the center of most of the world’s economies and societies.

Creating Big Ideas 

Looking back, NPR put some pretty big ideas on the table. Some we fulfilled, like getting an email account for every federal employee, moving to electronic benefit payments, and creating a single, governmentwide search portal long before Google was around. 

Other ideas were highly optimistic and are still yet to be achieved. For example, the report recommended: “The entire IRS filing process must be reengineered to be less paper-intensive …  The Secretary of the Treasury should eliminate or reduce the need for filing routine income tax returns by January 1998.” While that didn’t happen, the IRS did eventually move to electronic filing and allowed payments to be made online or via credit cards.

Remember, those were the days when the big tech advance was moving from 8-inch floppy disks to 3.5-inch disks, and Adobe PDF had just been released that same summer. There were no standards for federal agency websites. Some, like the Treasury Department, used a commercial .com email address. The White House didn’t have a website until October 1994. In fact, the General Services Administration didn’t take charge of the .gov web domain until 1997.

Creating a Governance Framework 

Those were the days before agencies had Chief Information Officers. So, the NPR report recommended the creation of a cross-agency working group of federal career technology enthusiasts to provide strategic guidance and to champion the implementation of various recommendations in the NPR report.

The Government Information Technology Services Working Group first convened in November 1993 to chart out a plan for implementing the tech recommendations in the NPR report. Initially chaired by Greg Woods, and later by Jim Flyzik, the working group focused both on pursuing ambitious recommendations for better services to citizens as well as crafting the foundation for IT leadership in the federal government. For example, they worked closely with the Office of Management and Budget and Congress in crafting the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which significantly changed how the federal government purchased and governed technology.

Prior to Clinger-Cohen, authority for all civilian agency technology purchases of more than $500—including personal computers— was centralized within the General Services Administration under the 1965 Brooks Act. The Clinger-Cohen Act delegated that purchase authority to agencies, required agencies to designate Chief Information Officers to oversee their agency’s IT strategy and spending, and made OMB responsible for tracking agency spending on major technology purchases.

After enactment of Clinger-Cohen, the working group transitioned to become the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Board, with many of the same members who championed the implementation of NPR recommendations, as well as developed additional projects, in an action plan called “Access America.” Individuals were designated as champions for each element in the action plan. For example, Bruce McConnell, then the OMB leader for information policy and technology (who was later succeeded in that role by current IBM Center Director Dan Chenok), took the lead for implementing the electronic benefit payments recommendation, Jim Flyzik from Treasury took the lead on electronic tax filing, and Neil Stillman from Health and Human Services was the champion for governmentwide email. 

Fostering Innovation 

To support the work of the GITS Board, GSA created an IT Innovation Fund pilot program, funded via a surcharge for agency useof  its telecom fund under “FTS 2000“ (which has since gone through many iterations and is now the “Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions” program), to provide seed money for cross-cutting innovations with a multi-agency benefit. The fund allocated between $5 million and $8 million a year to promising projects.

By late 1999, NPR and the GITS Board had cataloged over 1,300 different federal web initiatives underway that were providing government information and services to the public. Some of those still exist today (albeit in a different form), such as the US Business Advisor and Recreation.Gov.

The Board and the fund were sunsetted toward the end of the Clinton Administration, as the cross-agency CIO Council (formally established in 1996 under Executive Order 13011 as part of the implementation of Clinger Cohen) began to mature with development of its five-year strategic plan and a stronger role by OMB.

Insights for Today’s Leaders 

The experience of the early federal Internet offers two key takeaways: (1) when applying new technology, start with a compelling vision of how life would be better for the end user as NPR did, and, (2) let innovation and creativity flourish before formalizing and regulating online activity. Potential areas for applying these takeaways might include the use of emerging technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence.

While the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach was appropriate in the early years, it was clear by the end of the 1990s that it was time to weed the garden. The then-incoming President George W. Bush administration did just that with its Quicksilver Initiative, which Dan Chenok helped to drive. More on that in an upcoming column.