What's Next?

As the Bush administration enters its second term, what are we likely to see regarding digital government?

by / January 31, 2005
It would be an exaggeration to say e-government was a front-burner issue in the recent presidential election. Just because Jim Lehrer failed to ask presidential candidates their views of consolidated line-of-business initiatives, however, doesn't mean e-government won't be an important issue during the next four years. Indeed, the opportunity for transforming government and society through information technology has never been greater. As the Bush administration begins its second term, what e-government initiatives will we likely see? What should the administration and Congress do? How can government take the next steps to drive e-government transformation? Before answering these questions, it's worth looking at e-government's current state.

Where Are We Now?
During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush promised businesslike efficiency for government and proposed several e-government initiatives, including creation of a CIO position and a $100 million annual interagency e-government fund. Once in office, the president appointed Mark Forman CIO of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and charged him with directing e-government efforts. Forman championed several new initiatives, including development of 25 enterprisewide projects. The administration also continued and expanded Clinton administration efforts to build a federal enterprise architecture (FEA). The new administration established reference models in each of the five architecture layers (performance, business, service component, data and technical), trained OMB program managers to use the FEA and instituted budget review processes based on FEA compliance.

While the administration took positive steps, overall progress has been slower than many expected, especially considering many of the 25 projects technically were not very demanding. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Initiatives Sponsored by the OMB Have Made Mixed Progress, of the 91 objectives the administration identified for its e-government initiatives, the GAO found only 33 were fully or substantially achieved by March 2004. According to the administration's own management scorecard, only five agencies met established criteria for success in e-government. Nine agencies received failing grades, and another 12 scored "mixed results."

There are two main reasons for the wavering progress: lack of consistent leadership and the inability to consolidate IT funding around lines of business. Although Sen. Joseph Lieberman initially proposed in his E-Government Act of 2002 a top-level CIO who would preside over the entire federal government as either a deputy director of the OMB or as head of the new Office of Information Policy within the OMB, the administration -- partly because of resistance from top OMB officials -- created a lower-level position within the OMB. This associate administrator must work with the OMB's budget side each time she wants to drive a consolidated and holistic process.

Although the federal government's $60 billion IT budget is more than sufficient to build citizen-centric e-government solutions, the OMB lacks adequate resources to manage this portfolio effectively. To do the job, the OMB must:

1) conduct the trade-off analyses to assess the overlap and redundancy of agency systems;

2) determine which systems provide the greatest return to citizens and which should be scaled to support other agencies; and

3) reapportion funds and management authority to evolve systems and deliver service using a cross-servicing model.

Ultimately e-government is about establishing a new governance structure for horizontal and vertical process integration. On this critical point, the administration has done little to persuade Congress that cross-agency programs are more effective than the current committee-by-committee funding structure, or to address congressional concerns that the money was being spent poorly. In negotiations with the Senate on the E-Government Act of 2002, the administration agreed to ask for $100 million in fiscal 2004 for the interagency fund. However, it has asked for just $100 million for the past three years. The administration also failed to get buy-in from its own deputy secretaries.

Absent a significant push for change from the White House, greater management leadership in departments and agencies, or an unexpected change of heart from congressional appropriators, the pace of increased efficiency and effectiveness will be slow and iterative. Rather, with the exception of possible new IT initiatives in health care and homeland security, the next four years are likely to be a continuation of the last four: incremental progress with most current e-government initiatives coming to fruition, a few new projects, continuation of efforts to better justify IT expenditures, and continued development of the enterprise architecture.

What Can and Should Be Done by 2008?
If the administration continues its efforts, by 2008, it will have made some progress in using IT to make government work better and cost less. However, significant government transformation through technology won't likely happen without a bold reform agenda. This agenda must start with empowering individuals who truly want to drive change. While many agency CIOs currently have the right vision, they lack the power to translate their visions into reality. As a result, the Bush administration should elevate the status of the administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information within the OMB. This position, currently held by Karen Evans, should report to the OMB director rather than the deputy director for management. Canada, which ranks highly in e-government efforts, created an influential CIO position -- the treasury secretariat -- in its Treasury Board.

The OMB should also take the lead in crafting a strategic plan that elaborates specific, actionable steps to:

1) create holistic customer service solutions by focusing on end-user needs;

2) establish cross-agency back-office systems delivered through shared-service providers;

3) break the information stovepipes that impede the quality of so many government programs by proactively working with Congress to re-engineer the funding process;

4) use IT to tackle big challenges facing the nation; and

5) do all this in a way that significantly boosts adoption rates and dramatically cuts costs.

The current strategic planning process managed by the CIO Council is not working (the current plan is too general and vague) partly because the council is not equipped, authorized or supplied with the resources to do this.

1) Create a truly customer-centric e-government.

The Bush administration has taken steps toward creating customer-centric e-government, including improving FirstGov.gov and developing portals like Recreation.gov and Grants.gov. However, much more needs to be done.

First, the OMB must pressure individual agencies to make their Web sites more customer-centric -- despite some progress, many agency Web sites are anything but. To conduct an online search for FCC filings, one must first know the docket number, which is not easy to find. While consumers can use the Office of Thrift Supervision's Web site to learn how and where to mail a complaint, they cannot file complaints electronically.

Second, although the administration developed some new applications, it could and should develop many more. For example, the administration could develop online applications to let users report economic crime, bid on government surplus items, identify clinical trials and their results, and become literate. The administration would be more inclined to fund increased projects if it expanded the business-case justifications that currently place too little emphasis on savings to citizens and businesses.

Third, the administration needs to do more to make FirstGov a true citizen-centered portal. FirstGov largely consists of Web links. For example, on the Education, Jobs and Volunteerism page, if users click on "adult education," up pops the Department of Education Web site with college information for teens, but no information about Department of Labor training programs. When citizens click on "home buying," they are sent not to a re-engineered site that has all federal (and state) help for home buying, but to the Housing and Urban Development home page where they must scour another set of links to find the right information.

In contrast, other governments have created truly integrated Web portals with content developed especially around citizens' needs. Great Britain's easy-to-use portal, Directgov, for example, contains a site designed to help disabled persons with the information and resources they need. Canada's portal provides an online Interactive Export Planner that assists entrepreneurs in preparing an export plan by guiding them through each section of their plan using a question-and-answer format; giving definitions and tips, and allowing them to view sample plans to help them write their own plan; preparing financial projections for them based on information they provide; and assisting them in researching their export plan or business plan. For workers seeking education, Canada's Jobs, Workers, Training and Career portal offers integrated information and services for Canadians seeking work, exploring career options, developing learning plans or dealing with workplace issues. It also includes online career planning software and an e-learning tool.

Customer-centered e-government requires moving from separate departmental Web sites to a seamless Internet presence, organized around citizens' needs. Integration must occur not only between government agencies at the same level, but also between different government tiers and with the private sector. Citizens don't care what level of government they are dealing with; they just want answers. Yet the federal government has done little to create integrated Web sites that contain comprehensive federal and state information.

Other nations have also taken systematic steps to provide one-stop services. Canada created Web sites that integrate federal and provincial government information. For instance, the Business Start-Up Assistant is an integrated portal to federal, provincial and private-sector information on how to start a business. It provides this information by region, and includes business registration forms as well as current market research. New businesses in British Columbia can go to one Web site and fill out all local, provincial and federal forms they need to start a business. Consumers can also get federal and provincial information regarding consumer protection issues online.

True integration also requires moving beyond the mindset that government should provide all the applications. Instead, government should do more to enhance private efforts. For example, Earth911.org receives environmental information from 10,000 localities across the United States and allows residents to enter their ZIP code to determine where to properly dispose of used oil and old tires, how to dispose of outdated medicines, where to find electric vehicle charging stations or how to recycle grass clippings.

2) Use IT to radically streamline and consolidate back-office functions.

In the drive to cut costs during the 1990s, many large companies used IT to consolidate internal company functions along shared lines of business. Recently some governments also moved in this direction. The German state of Hesse built a shared service center to provide accounting services to the nearly 800 state government agencies. The shared service center provides better service at lower cost. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner consolidated virtually all IT positions in scores of state agencies into a single state IT agency. The Bush administration has also started in this direction, launching its lines-of-business initiative that focuses on financial management, human resources, grants, criminal investigation and public health monitoring. It also established its SmartBUY initiative for consolidated enterprise licensing.

The administration must go much further and use the FEA to identify all overlapping areas and work to consolidate common business functions into shared centers of excellence. These centers would use Web services that allow organizations to use build-once, use-many software applications. Moving to such a service-oriented architecture means most agencies would no longer manage their own separate back-office operations. Instead they would contract them to shared service centers, which could be run either by other agencies that already have state-of-the-art, scalable systems or by private providers.

3) Congress should drive e-government transformation.

Developing truly customer-centric integrated "front-office" systems and enterprisewide shared service centers will require more than just business as usual. Otherwise, agency resistance will stymie bold reforms. While the Bush administration can and should do more to drive such change -- particularly through the budget process -- at the end of the day, Congress must be a full partner.

Although Congress has taken some action, including passing the E-Government Act of 2002, it often has been part of the problem. In a decision that was penny-wise but pound-foolish, Congress refused to adequately fund the administration's cross-agency e-government initiatives, and limited funding for the OMB's enterprise architecture efforts. Moreover, Congress' agency-centric appropriations process leads it to fund stovepiped IT solutions and resist administration efforts to support an enterprise approach to managing and coordinating federal IT investments and functions. It's time for Congress to recognize that good IT management must be enterprisewide and to use an FEA framework for evaluating its own IT appropriation decisions.

Congress could start by fully implementing the 2002 E-Government Act and appropriating $100 million per year to the interagency e-government fund, or Congress could avoid spending the money by allowing the OMB to impose a small "tax" on agency IT budgets to support the interagency fund.

Such a fund is one reason Canada has been effective in e-government. In fiscal 2003 alone, the Treasury Board of Canada CIO spent $225.7 million on cross-cutting e-government initiatives, including secure infrastructure, common portals, policies and standards, and online service delivery.

Congress could go even further and address its own responsibility for perpetuating stovepipe systems by making a single appropriations subcommittee in each chamber responsible for funding decisions for all front- and back-office IT systems. While lacking the authority to fund mission-critical IT systems -- such as the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control modernization efforts -- the two subcommittees could be responsible for funding and overseeing federal back-office activities and Web-based front-office functions.

To take an even bolder step, Congress could authorize and fund a new federal entity to manage all enterprisewide e-government functions, and develop and enforce standards for all agency Web sites. This could be modeled on Ireland's Reach, an agency established to develop an e-government strategy and build an enterprisewide Public Services Broker. The broker provides a single mechanism to access public services, improving service delivery through traditional means and the new self-service electronic channel. This is similar to Nova Scotia's separate, self-funded agency, Service Nova Scotia, which consolidated more than 1,700 points of contact. Citizens who contact any Service Nova Scotia office, by calling its 800 number or visiting its Web site, can access all nonsocial provincial services.

Congress should also accelerate the move toward consolidated shared services, perhaps by appropriating a certain amount of money per employee for each back-office function. If the most efficient payroll processing costs $20 per employee per year, Congress should allocate a bit more (e.g., $25 per employee) to agencies for this function. Alternatively Congress could mandate that back-office functions be provided centrally. Either way, congressional appropriators should agree to no longer provide funds for legacy agency-specific, line-of-business systems if joint systems perform the same function at a lower cost.

Finally Congress should also provide seed funding to help state and local governments develop cross-jurisdictional back-office integration. Few states and localities do this because of the costs and difficulty of organizing such efforts. The failure to move to electronic recordation of deeds is one example. Electronic recordation would dramatically cut the costs of title searches and title insurance, saving homebuyers billions of dollars per year. Yet companies are afraid to invest in electronic recordation services because counties haven't made electronic recordation a priority. Most counties aren't investing due to budget pressures and the "chicken or egg" dilemma. To break this impasse, Congress should help counties defray the costs of moving to shared electronic recordation systems.

4) Use IT to tackle big challenges facing the nation.

While true customer-centric e-government and shared back-office services is the third stage of e-government (the first two being presentation of information and transactions), the fourth and truly transformative stage is to use IT to better accomplish public goals. The Department of Defense's use of IT to accomplish its war fighting tasks is perhaps the best example of how government embraces IT to more effectively carry out its mission (see this issue's cover story). But IT holds promise for transformation in several other areas, including health care, transportation, intelligence and law enforcement, and education.

One area in which we will likely see progress over the next four years is health care. Digital transformation of the health-care system can keep us healthy -- with less cost, and more convenience and safety than the mountains of paper in the current system. In 2004, the president charged the Department of Health and Human Services with developing a strategy for the federal government to accelerate transformation of health care with IT. But significant transformation will require more than the administration's current focus on standardizing and digitizing patient records.

A second major area is homeland security. Preventing terrorist attacks on American soil will depend in part on creating an integrated, systemwide terrorist information and analysis network that links a wide range of information from disparate sources. The Markle Foundation's Task Force on National Security in the Information Age proposed development of such a system, and the 9-11 Commission-inspired intelligence reform legislation requires the administration to create such an integrated system.

5) Significantly increase citizen adoption while reducing costs.

Since the earliest stages of e-government, the focus has been on getting more applications online. Whether people used them was something to worry about later. Well, later is now. It's time for e-government to start showing results with increased adoption and reduced costs.

Online systems will only save government money when enough citizens use them to justify government scaling back on face-to-face services. To get there, government must do much more to boost adoption rates. It can start by doing a better job of ascertaining what users want. One reason Canada is a world leader in e-government is that it regularly consults -- offline and online -- with citizens about what they want to see online. In addition, some Canadian government Web sites include online feedback forms that let citizens score sites, suggest changes and indicate problems, such as bad links. Singapore uses similar forms asking citizens their views on which public, nonprofit and private e-services should be integrated.

Second, the federal government needs to market sites more effectively. Because the government has done little to market e-government services, few Americans are aware of them. One reason just 8 percent of Americans have accessed Recreation.gov is because the government does little to market it. The National Park Service's brochures and other literature don't even mention the site. Government needs to use all of its offline channels -- including offices, forms and the telephone -- to advertise its online channels.

Finally, where possible, government should give citizens incentives to conduct transactions online. For example, the IRS could let taxpayers file electronically as late as May 1. It could require businesses larger than a certain size only to communicate electronically. Texas, for example, requires businesses with annual revenues of more than $100,000 to pay sales or franchise taxes via electronic funds transfer.

Done right, e-government can not only cut costs, but also offer a philosophy and program for the reinvention of government, away from the kind of big, bureaucratic welfare state of the old economy to the kind of lean, flexible, digitized and enabling public-private partnership of the new economy. Now is the time to take the next bold steps in e-government to realize this vision.

I would like to thank the following individuals who provided helpful advice on this article: Dan Chenok, vice president and director of Policy and Management Strategies at SRA; Paul Lawrence, Ph.D., partner at IBM Government Consulting Practice; and Alan Proctor, vice president of Advanced Enterprise Solutions at Sytel. Of course, the author bears responsibility for any and all errors or omissions.
Dr. Robert D. Atkinson Contributing Writer