Karen Evans, the newly appointed head of information technology for the federal government, makes one thing very clear. Don't call her the e-government czar or czarina.

Her formal title -- the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) associate administrator for IT and e-government -- will do just fine. But there's no mistaking that this mother of two from West Virginia now holds the world's most powerful IT position in government.

In September, she replaced Mark Forman, who left abruptly to return to the private sector. Forman became the federal government's first e-government chief in 2000 and managed to get 24 initiatives under way, which are expected to transform a once stodgy government bureaucracy into an integrated service to citizens and businesses, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Evans' task is to see that the initiatives are completed. She will also oversee deployment of enterprise architecture that will undergird the construction of vast new information systems, which will transform how the federal government operates. It won't be an easy task, and Evans knows it.

For one thing, IT is now a major component of what makes government tick. Technology has become one of the federal government's major investments in recent years, surpassing $58 billion, she explained. "We spend more on technology than what Congress appropriates for international affairs."

But the consensus in Washington is if anyone can take charge of federal IT and keep e-government on track, it's Evans. She began her career in government 20 years ago, and most recently worked for 19 months as CIO of the Department of Energy (DOE), where she directed the IT programs and operations for an agency with an annual budget of nearly $22 billion. At the same time, she co-chaired the CIO Council, which recommends policies and standards for IT programs in the federal sector, including e-government. The council has taken on an increasingly influential role in guiding agency IT practices according to the President's Management Agenda.

Perhaps no one knows better than Forman what Evans brings to the table in terms of leadership and experience. "Karen clearly understands what it takes to succeed with IT at all levels of the federal government," he said, emphasizing her sound judgment, IT knowledge and teamwork skills. "It's important to remember she not only worked her way up the ladder to the top in government, but has done it as a woman in the IT community."

Before joining the DOE, Evans directed the Information Resource Management division in the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs. She has also worked at several other agencies, including the National Park Service, the Office of Personnel Management and the Farmers Home Administration of the Department of Agriculture.

With Congress offering little funding for e-government initiatives, Evans realizes reaching certain goals won't be easy -- but there's no turning back. "We have a huge responsibility and sometimes it's going to get really tough," she told a group of federal IT executives at the Interagency Resources Management conference in September, shortly after the announcement of her new position. "But we're going to do the 24 initiatives," she continued. "That's not stopping. The train has left the station."

In an interview with Government Technology's Public CIO prior to becoming the nation's top IT chief, Evans displayed her leadership skills as she explained how her position on the CIO Council is helping the President move his management agenda forward.

Public CIO: What are the most pressing issues facing the CIO Council today?

EVANS: Right now we are focused on the federal enterprise architecture and the governance associated with the architecture. Along those lines, the council has a committee with three subcommittees associated with it. The three committees are governance, service component and emerging technologies.

We are very focused on what it's going to take, how we're going to govern all our investments along those lines of the enterprise architecture, and how that then comes down into each of the agencies.

Along with that, we're focused on the human capital aspect to make sure we're doing all of those pieces. We have a committee co-chaired by Ira Hobbs [deputy CIO, USDA] and Janet Barnes [CIO, Office of Personnel Management] -- the architecture committee -- so when you come back to the human capital piece, they are very focused on managing initiatives within 10 percent of cost, schedule and performance. We are focused on our solutions architects, our enterprise architects and making sure we know where our skill gaps are. How are we going to get there.

The OMB has also put a requirement on us. By the end of this fiscal year, all project managers of major investments must be certified. [Hobbs] is working on what those certifications mean, making sure we have the same definitions, so certification at EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency] is the same at Agriculture.

Then we are working on exchange at the data layer, using things like XML and working on standards so a name is a name is a name.

Public CIO: How far along is the federal enterprise architecture at this point?

EVANS: We released our version of the business reference model. We have the performance and technical reference model out. Those are now being reviewed and circulating among the departments and the Council to get their input, so we can publish those documents. There's a Web site where all our architecture work is published.

Public CIO: How is the Council responding to the Bush administration's calls for better controls on IT spending and improving performance? What is the Council's role in terms of oversight of agency spending and performance?

EVANS: There's a two-pronged answer. The OMB has management responsibility for the executive agencies. The OMB works in partnership with them because if you put out a policy that's not workable, the policy isn't very good at that point. So through the work and the relationship the Council has with the OMB, we will bring ideas to the OMB. It's a very much a partnership between the Council and the OMB about how we can actually implement the tenets in the Clinger-Cohen Act, and have that transcend into operational aspects of each department.

The Council will work in partnership with the OMB and say what works and what doesn't. The OMB ultimately has the final say because all policies are published through the formal process, and the OMB issues policies for us from the governance perspective once legislation is passed. So it's very interactive: How can we make this work and have it really transcend through all the agencies, so you can have a governance process?

The last [Council] committee, which is best practices, has to look at all the things we are responsible for, see how certain agencies are making it work, and take those lessons learned and share them with other agencies, or when a new CIO or new management comes in. With those practices identified and out there, you don't have to do it all over again. The Council is there to help new people as they come.

Public CIO: How do you identify intergovernmental projects worthy of support and help move them forward?

EVANS: Intergovernmental is a huge priority, and we're moving them forward through the federal enterprise architecture. This gets into what the OMB is reviewing through the traditional budget process. What will happen is as our business cases come up, they have to align with the department's architecture, which has to align with the federal architecture. We are strongly encouraged from the president on down to engage in teamwork, through the scorecard, to reach out and have those partnerships.

Public CIO: It's not uncommon to have rivalries emerge from intergovernmental projects, or situations arise where one agency takes the lead, forcing the others to follow and diminishing the cooperative nature of the project. Does the scorecard system help persuade agencies to work better together?

EVANS: Through the scorecard and federal enterprise architecture effort, a lot of what I would call emotional types of issues have a tendency to fall by the wayside, because you can really see an objective matter is best for the citizen. All of us are here, and the ultimate goal is for the citizen.

Public CIO: Can you comment on how the CIO Council is trying to bring other levels of government into the picture?

EVANS: We do have an official member from NASCIO, and through efforts of the FEA [federal enterprise architecture], you can see the business lines and states have been doing a lot in architecture development and have partnered with us on this. They are aligning their state architectures with the federal architecture. Their business lines are similar to ours. They have business lines along education, public safety and energy, so they can align their efforts.

And now through having this [architecture] published at the Web site, they can see where the federal government is going. And again, it lends clarity to partner with different agencies or find out what they are doing, so they can be aligned when projects come down the line.

When the service component module is out there with the technical reference module, they will see things we are doing, and may be able to match it up. We're hoping it will add more clarity so it would be easier and visual so they can see where we all link up.

Public CIO: The General Accounting Office (GAO) has released a report on the administration's e-government initiatives and criticized the lack of oversight on some of the projects. What's your view on the oversight situation?

EVANS: I like to think of the GAO as giving us recommendations on how we can improve. But I would also say the OMB has moved into the arena of doing portfolio management. If you look at how the OMB is structuring itself and managing the investments, they are managing a portfolio of investments for the President of the United States, so we can have the oversight into the investments. The Council is helping to fill gaps in areas, such as project management, where we explain what the means and where the certified project managers are.

Is their [GAO] report right on for right now? Sure, but I would like to think it provides recommendations for us to go forward. I think there have been great strides in how we are moving forward to portfolio management.

Public CIO: The IRS outsourced a major component of e-government by allowing private companies, such as Quicken, to run their taxpayer transactions. How does the Council view this type of outsourcing, and can we expect to see more of it in the future?

EVANS: Competitive sourcing is another tenet of the PMA [President's Management Agenda]. What that's really about is the people who are the best should provide that service. It's making the federal government more competitive with its industry partners.

We should not be making redundant investments, we should not be creating where a best practice already exists in private industry. Competitive sourcing allows us to free up resources, so they can be more focused on the business of that agency.

Public CIO: Is there anything on the horizon in terms of technology that particularly excites and interests you?

EVANS: What the federal government is doing now in terms of exchanging information and moving toward XML is going to be a great thing for us. Web services are going to be a great thing for us. Wi-Fi is going to be a great thing for us.

But with each one of those are other things we have to consider. Wi-Fi is great; we'll always be connected. But we'll have to deal with the security aspect. That's the challenge with these great technologies. But they are exciting because they offer things for us and abilities to us to keep connected, keep information going, to run government and provide citizens with services on a 24/7 basis. That's going to offer us tremendous flexibility.

Public CIO: What sorts of changes lie ahead for the CIO Council?

EVANS: When the E-Government Act was signed by the President in December 2002, it validated the Council [which was created by the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996]. That brought the Council to a new level, where it's now required by law to perform certain activities. It's a very exciting time to be a CIO. We're going to work on our strategic plan, which we are now required to do and which will outline a lot of the ways the Council will move forward under this new environment of the E-Government Act. It's very thrilling.

Public CIO: As the role of federal CIO becomes more important, has it also become more politically sensitive?

EVANS: That's a bigger question, and it's about the legislative branch. If you go back to the way the country was originally established, they introduced those [branches] as a series of checks and balances on purpose. The country has existed for over 200 years with those checks and balances, it's just that the people functioning within those are changing, and technology has enabled that change.

It's not about technology anymore. It's about the business and the people -- what you are trying to achieve. This is the reason I am a public servant in a 23-year career. I'm amazed at what our forefathers thought about and what effort they put into the Constitution with the checks and balances in place: what the legislative branch can do, what the executive branch can do, or the judicial branch can do. It's amazing what they thought about, because we have tested it over and over and it has withstood the test of time.

So is it a challenge? Sure, but that's what makes it great.

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.