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

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Agriculture CIO Hobbs is enthusiastic about the security mandate. "We clearly need to continue improving our cybersecurity posture across government. Having it [legislated] is good for all of us. It keeps our feet in the fire in the area where we need to spend time and resources," he says. Kentucky CIO Aldona Valicenti thinks it’s one of the best things in the act, particularly because it makes it easier for states to interact securely with federal agencies. "You can imagine?I deal with Justice, Treasury, the EPA, [Health and Human Services]. If everyone has a different set of standards and a state wants to standardize on something else, we’re just nowhere," she says. "The greater amount of coordination on the federal side is positive for states."

Through many of its provisions, the E-Government Act gets the federal government out of the starting blocks, but managers and CIOs are going to be running 10-minute miles for a pretty long time. After all, one can’t expect a single piece of legislation to quickly transform Washington’s lumbering bureaucracy into a lean online machine.

Implementing e-government

There is no federal CIO.

It’s been seven years since passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act, which required federal agencies to appoint CIOs. That act was a giant step in getting agencies to acknowledge the importance of IT to their mission. But, in the minds of many, a large hole exists at the apex of the federal government’s IT management structure, a hole that should be filled by someone with the federal CIO title. During a congressional committee hearing on the e-government legislation, Valicenti, testifying for the National Association of Chief Information Officers, urged the committee to create the position. "We wanted to provide a powerful position so that the federal government would adhere to standards and put more of their services online," she says. The sponsors of the bill in Congress, including Sen. Lieberman and Rep. Turner, agreed, and the initial legislation called for the creation of a CIO position within the OMB that would require Senate confirmation. But ultimately, the Bush administration nixed the proposal. "Any administration probably has a natural tendency to oppose the creation of additional positions that require Senate confirmation. That’s particularly true in an environment when the Senate is in control of one party [as it was at the time] and the administration in control of the other," Turner opines. "Secondly, there is a natural turf battle any time you’re trying to elevate a position within the administration because OMB always has the belief that the director of OMB should be the one in charge of all management and budget issues, which in their mind, includes IT." Though Forman holds many of the responsibilities of the CIO position, his profile would likely be raised if he became the government’s CIO. A person holding that title statutorially might have an easier time consolidating IT management powers into one position and would be in a stronger position to elevate IT to a higher level, helping to ensure that technology strategy is part and parcel of the federal government’s management strategy.

The structure of the federal government makes successful e-government difficult.

As has been noted, the government’s stovepiped structure has been institutionalized for more than two centuries. Even if cross-agency cooperation increases, the realities of the autonomous structure will make the process slow. Funding is one example. E-government requires that agencies offer services to citizens based on a functional perspective, "yet we program money on an agency perspective," says McClure; that is, agencies develop their own budget. He says the same holds true for performance outcomes. "Congress is trying to instill a performance-based approach to government, but it’s been an agency focus, not a functional focus."

Governance is another whole ball of e-wax. "E-government sort of blows up traditional organizational structures, processes and authority, and erases organizational lines pretty fast," McClure notes. "Trying to agree on governance models on authority, control and responsibility will have to be worked out."

"Bureaucrats guard their autonomy very carefully," says Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University in Providence, R.I., "and e-government forces them to work together in ways they haven’t in the past."

Agencies have a lot of work to do when it comes to security.

The good news is that agencies are prioritizing information security more than ever, and the E-Government Act will reinforce that momentum. The less-than-good news is that some agencies are beginning their ascent to the security summit somewhere around sea level or worse. The latest Horn computer security report cards of federal agencies, announced by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) last November, gave F’s to 14 of 24 agencies. (The Social Security Administration earned the highest grade, a B-.) "I think the federal government still has a ways to go to get its house in order," says ITAA’s Kellogg. The challenge is even more acute for government agencies because citizens set a higher security bar for government than they do for the private sector, according to McClure. "If a government entity was hacked and credit card numbers [were stolen], public trust in government would suffer tremendously," he says. And, just as in the private sector, hacking government systems is a relatively common occurrence. "It’s been a serious problem," says McClure, who previously worked as director of IT management issues at the General Accounting Office.

Privacy concerns remain a lightning-rod issue.

E-government, by its very definition, means more data is collected and shared among agencies, and that raises the level of concern among privacy advocates. The Privacy Act of 1974, which put procedural safeguards in place to protect citizens’ data, has held up surprisingly well for its age, but there are exceptions to that act that have increased over time. A major one is the "routine use" exception, which allows agencies to share information on individuals for the routine business of government. (For example, the Department of Education can share student loan information with the Treasury Department.) The danger is that routine use could increase as e-government expands, resulting in more personal information in the hands of agencies without the knowledge of individuals. "[The exception] is overused today already," says Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. "In the e-gov world, the concern becomes more acute because the whole purpose is for agencies to share information when needed."

Schwartz goes on to say that privacy protections have been weakened in the Bush administration, noting the failed Operation Tips (which encouraged citizens to report suspicious activity), new domestic surveillance rules passed last year that allow the FBI more liberty to gather information, and 2001’s USA Patriot Act (which also allows the government more powers of surveillance). "Law enforcement should be able to do its job and share information in a reasonable way as long as its not invading privacy. But there needs to be oversight. [The country has] a history of the misuse of information," he says.

Of course, many of those developments have been a direct result of the events of 9/11. The tricky part for Americans is balancing the need for better information to prevent future terrorist attacks against the danger of losing their civil liberties.

Citizens still lack access to government information.

Does the act turn the country into an e-democracy overnight? Absolutely not. The digital divide isn’t going away. There’s no public catalog of all the government information that exists online. Agencies aren’t required to post online who they do business with. "Why is it the public can’t come through Firstgov.gov and obtain information about who’s doing business with government?" says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch in Washington, D.C., a government accountability watchdog group. "I should be able to know if General Electric is doing business with the government and at the same time see if GE is violating any regulatory or legal requirements imposed upon it," Switching gears from businesses to citizens, he adds, "I should be able to see how safe my drinking water is and [find] data that tells me the quality of the water. That’s the information the public is interested in."

By virtue of the E-Government Act, the Bush administration and Congress have admirably put the pedal to the metal in their quest to make government operate more efficiently and cost-effectively, and to make government services more accessible and responsive to citizens. The act’s bipartisan support in both houses of Congress clearly demonstrates that our elected officials recognize the importance of using IT to improve government. But transforming government won’t happen overnight; it will be a long and slow process, akin to watching a sapling grow to maturity. The E-Government Act injects the necessary fertilizer, but its roots will need plenty of time to take hold.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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