The E-Government Act: The Cost, the Hurdles, the Future

On Dec. 17, 2002, President Bush signed the E-Government Act into law. The signing was muffled amidst the drumbeat of war talk with Iraq, and with scant controversy behind its bipartisan passage, it was little more than a blip on the radar screen of the nation’s media. Yet by the simple action of signing the act, the president had taken a giant step toward launching the federal government into the information age.

E-government is designed to make it easier for citizens and businesses to access government information and services by encouraging interagency IT initiatives that, while improving customer service, also consolidate redundant systems, decrease paperwork, increase productivity and save money. As Mark Forman, associate director for IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, told a gathering last year of the Open Group?a standards body?e-government will enable "an order of magnitude improvement in the federal government’s value to the citizen; with decisions in minutes or hours, not weeks or months." Ultimately, it’s about making government citizen-centric so that you can go to websites to get information about unemployment benefits, comment on proposed clean air rules or apply for an import license. You save time. And the government gets more for its IT dollars.

That’s no small matter. The federal government’s proposed IT budget for the 2004 fiscal year is a whopping $59 billion. Yet that money has traditionally been appropriated and spent on an agency-by-agency basis, with little regard to how a system might fit into an overall federal architecture and with little focus on using IT to improve citizen services.

Money and budgets aside, the E-Government Act is a logical extension of President Bush’s management agenda, which cites e-government as one of the five key cornerstones of his efforts to run government more like a business. "The idea behind this law is for the federal government to take full advantage of the Internet and other information technologies to improve its efficiency and to secure its electronic information," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), author of the act, in a statement released last December.

The new legislation aims to further the inroads Forman and his staff at the OMB have been making; they have been using IT to help improve government efficiency and make services more responsive to citizens. The OMB’s 25 various e-government initiatives are a prime example (see "Emphasizing Business Value," Page 48). One of the projects, the Department of Labor’s Govbenefits.gov site, aims to help citizens locate and determine their eligibility for benefits and services. Patrick Pizzella, CIO at the DoL, is justifiably proud of the new site. "In 30 to 60 days, we’ll have [close to] 300 government benefit programs on the site.... It saves [citizens] a lot of time, and it’s available around the clock," he says.

The act builds on the work already being done by the OMB and the federal CIO Council, and it pumps the power of law into the government’s IT fuel tank. To establish accountability, it has created a new office within the OMB devoted to e-government strategy and implementation. It establishes a separate, $345 million E-Government Fund for interagency projects, requires basic standards for federal websites and privacy impact assessments for new systems, and calls for improved information security measures. (For major provisions of the act, see "E-Government Act of 2002 Highlights," opposite page.)

"The bill is probably the most extensive piece of legislation to date on e-government," says Dave McClure, who worked on the legislation. McClure is vice president for e-government at The Council for Excellence in Government in Washington, D.C., a group that works to improve the government’s performance. For their part, federal CIOs say the new law and its E-Government Fund finally gives them the legal and financial backing needed to make e-government happen. "The fund will support projects that try to find innovative ways to make it easier for the public to conduct business with the federal government," says Woody Hall, CIO at the Customs Service. Rosita Parks, CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also is a fan of the fund. "Having had managing partner responsibility for two e-gov initiatives with broad application since last August, and understanding how difficult it has been to garner resources for both initiatives, I believe that one of the most beneficial elements of the act is that it authorizes e-gov funds beyond the $100 million originally targeted," says Parks.

Although Congress and the administration are clearly paving the way to creating a 24/7 government, there are a number of hurdles ahead for the 60 or so federal CIOs who make up the CIO Council. Reformers are starting to chip away at the traditional stovepiped structure of the federal government?spurred by the integration of 22 agencies into the new Department of Homeland Security?yet the fact remains that an agency, not cross-agency, perspective is the norm. Until that changes, a functional framework for e-government will be nothing more than a tease and an empty promise. In addition, privacy and security issues will remain paramount as citizen information is increasingly gathered and exchanged among numerous agencies’ systems. And the $345 million that the act authorized for the E-Government Fund over four years is subject to the legislative whims of Congress. That became clear in January when Senate appropriators slashed $40 million from the $45 million that was earmarked for the 2003 fiscal year.

While the e-gov act promises major benefits in terms of service and efficiency, achieving true e-government won’t happen until the players involved overcome some significant challenges.

The Act’s Guiding Principles

Make it easier for citizens to interact with government.

Attempting to find out which agencies are responsible for regulating nursing homes or protecting local rivers or regulating the amount of animal byproducts in the bratwurst you just consumed can be a frustrating trip through a byzantine collection of 22,000 agency websites. The act calls for improving the federal government’s portal, Firstgov.gov, so that citizens will have access to better organized information in fewer clicks, regardless of agency. According to McClure, the act mandates uniform access to the government’s functional services?paying taxes, applying for loans or getting disaster assistance, for example. "The goal is to do it simpler and faster, without navigating government bureaucracy," McClure says.

Another provision calls for e-rule making that allows citizens to comment on proposed regulations online. "It’s a very democratizing provision," says Kevin Landy, a counsel on Lieberman’s staff on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee who worked on the e-government legislation. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a new website (www.regulations.gov) that gives citizens and businesses a one-stop portal to submit their opinions on government regulations from all departments. Previously, the public comment process was difficult to use; for example, citizens needed to know the agency responsible for a specific rule and often had to submit the comment in writing. "E-rule making will allow citizens to participate actively by enabling them to be involved in federal rule making on their own terms at a location and time of their choice," said EPA Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher in remarks delivered at the time of the site’s official launch. "This initiative will help assure the public that they have a role in making regulatory decisions, and that it can be done in a more timely and efficient manner."

Another significant plus: The OMB estimates that creating a single system for rule making will save $94 million.

Increase agency-to-agency cooperation.

Since the birth of the nation more than two centuries ago, the federal government has grown up around an agency-centric structure. But today’s government managers realize that for e-government to succeed, cross-agency partnerships are critical, whether it’s the Department of Agriculture working with the Department of the Interior on geospatial mapping, or the Office of Personnel Management working with agencies to consolidate payroll systems. "We need to make choices based on citizens, as opposed to the specific department we come from," says Ira Hobbs, deputy CIO in the Department of Agriculture. To develop security standards, create website guidelines or make any other provisions of the act succeed, government CIOs will need to continue formulating common strategies.

Commenced in late 2001, the OMB’s Quicksilver initiatives have already been actively breaking down barriers as agencies have worked side by side developing e-government projects. And the OMB’s IT team, led by Forman, has also been working with government CIOs on a number of other IT initiatives, including the development of a federal architecture. The act provides "additional momentum for what we’ve been doing in terms of using IT to improve the value and delivery of government services," says Doug Bourgeois, CIO of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Jim Flyzik, who recently left government after serving in the Department of Homeland Security and as CIO at the Treasury Department, strongly advocates looking at government from a functional, not a stovepiped, perspective. And he thinks the act, as well as DHS, can do just that. "The evolution of the Internet and tearing down of lines of demarcation across entities is part of that evolution [toward a more functional view of government]. It allows a physical restructuring and better services," says Flyzik, who cofounded a Washington, D.C.-based government consulting firm, Guerra, Kiviat & Flyzik, last December.

Raise the profile of government IT leaders by creating a new Office of Electronic Government and writing the federal CIO Council into law.

The new office will be part of the OMB and led by a presidential-appointed administrator. That person will also head the federal CIO Council, an interagency group of CIOs and deputy CIOs. Those two provisions legislate two groups completely devoted to improving governmentwide management of IT. Flyzik, who was vice chairman of the council, says he’d been pushing to make the council law for some time. "We constantly tried to position the CIO Council to be a strategic force in setting the agenda for the administration," Flyzik says, adding that, by making it law, the council gains a lot more emphasis and authority. The act sets out specific responsibilities for the new administrator, including capital planning and investment control for IT, the development of enterprise architectures, ensuring dialogue between the federal, state and local sectors, and overseeing the distribution of the E-Government Fund. A logical choice to head the new office is Forman, the government’s top IT official.

Strengthen privacy protections by requiring privacy impact assessments for new systems.

Congress and the administration understand that Americans are justifiably concerned about privacy in their digital interactions. The provision calls for assessments any time personal information is collected on 10 or more people. The assessments must address what information is to be collected and why, how it will be used and secured, with whom it will be shared, and requires notice of how consent is to be obtained from individuals. "By requiring agencies to go through the process of answering those questions, I think we move a long way toward protecting the privacy of the American public," says Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), who introduced the legislation in the House. McClure says that the importance of the provision is that assessments are now law. "In the past, there was guidance from OMB but nothing specifically in the law," he says. "That’s a strengthening of privacy protections." Another provision requires agencies to provide privacy notices outlining their policies on their websites.

Improve information security.

In 2000, Congress passed the Government Information Security Reform Act (GISRA), which required agencies to report on the security of their IT systems and build security into their business cases when making budget requests. Last year, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a key supporter of the E-Government Act in the House, introduced legislation to strengthen GISRA, which expired last November. That bill became the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), which calls for security standards, annual independent audits and gives Congress more oversight over agency security matters. "Many have described it as GISRA with teeth," says Shannon Kellogg, vice president of information security policy and programs at the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America, an industry trade group. FISMA became law in the E-Government Act.

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