At 1st birthday, e-gov push toddles along

Getting a consensus on data standards for grant forms was tough''we tried to come up with something people are familiar with.'

'Charles Havekost, E-Grants project manager

Henrik G. DeGyor

Almost a year after the Office of Management and Budget outlined an ambitious rollout of 24'now 25'e-government initiatives, project leaders have had mixed success in meeting deadlines.

With many projects reaching their first critical deadlines within the past few weeks, nine e-government teams saw their projects slip off schedule.

OMB set milestones for 16 projects over the last two months. But factors such as insufficient agency cooperation, inadequate technology, and last-minute reviews and revisions caused the missed deadlines, team leaders said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disasterhelp.gov portal and the Office of Personnel Management's E-Payroll project are among the initiatives that are behind schedule.

Norm Enger, OPM's e-government project director, said the team working on E-Payroll, which will consolidate 22 government payroll systems into two or three, will need an extra 30 to 45 days to choose from seven agency payroll provider bids. OPM needs the extra time to complete a study on federal workers who will be displaced by the consolidation. OPM director Kay Coles James late last month requested the study, Enger said.

Disasterhelp project leaders originally set an Aug. 20 launch date for their portal, then pushed it back to mid-September. The portal began running last month as a test site for use by FEMA workers only. Some partner agencies were slow to provide content for the site.

The Small Business Administration's Business Compliance One-Stop team also needed more time to roll out its portal. But project manager Jim Van Wert said the site's second version should be ready by month's end.

Officials managing other projects, such as the Health and Human Services Department's Consolidated Health Informatics, which has moved from a business case to become the 25th Quicksilver project, and FEMA's Safecom wireless initiative, have had to redo business cases and still are in the early phases of development.

Some projects are on track. The General Services Administration's E-Authentication initiative, which many see as the crucial cog in the e-government engine, last month tested a prototype gateway with the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center.

'We demonstrated the essence of the gateway,' said Stephen Timchak, E-Authentication program manager. 'It is real, it works, and we hope to go operational with it using live transactions in the first quarter of fiscal 2003.'

GSA tested the gateway using the finance center's time and attendance program to show that the gateway can recognize different levels of authentication, such as public-key infrastructure and password protections, Timchak said.

When the gateway goes live in the next three months, GSA will offer transactions for five or six federal projects, Timchak said.

The Social Security Administration's E-Vital project, which will let federal, state and local officials share birth and death records, earlier this month rolled out its first version.

Through a partnership with the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, SSA employees can verify birth and death records collected by Colorado's vital statistics agency. SSA plans to integrate records systems for seven more states by the end of November.

E-Vital uses middleware to transmit an SSA employee's query to a state system. The state system verifies the data submitted by SSA and transmits the clearance back to SSA.

'This is an efficient way to query diverse databases and do it in a fashion where everyone is satisfied with security and privacy issues, and the information is returned in a timely manner,' said John McGing, E-Vital's program manager.

The states still control the data, but using a standard Extensible Markup Language format provides an audit trail, McGing said.

Transportation Department officials had hoped to launch the Online Rulemaking site more than three months early, but technical problems delayed the portal by a few weeks.

An OMB official said last month that project leaders are fixing a problem with user capacity. The official said the portal still will launch before the Dec. 31 deadline.

The Interior Department's Recreation One-Stop, Labor Department's GovBenefits and HHS' E-Grants projects also met their September deadlines. Interior relaunched a Recreation One-Stop portal a few days early and added new services, including features that provide users with maps and driving directions. Project leaders also implemented a data exchange with the National Park Service to update its database more easily.

Poised for the portal

GovBenefits surpassed its goal of integrating links to 100 federal benefits programs by Sept. 30 and plans to add more than 20 programs a month to its portal.

For E-Grants, HHS has identified data standards it will use for grants forms governmentwide, program manager Charles Havekost said.

'This was one of the hardest pieces,' he said. 'There has been an effort to reach consensus on these standards for a long time. We tried to come up with something people are familiar with so we wouldn't have to slog through policy or standards battles.'

HHS and its partner agencies agreed to use SF 424, a form now used by about 100 grant programs. The portal also will use the public-sector X12 standard transaction conventions for data interchanges, known as X12 Set 194.

In the year since Mark Forman, OMB's associate director for IT and e-government, introduced the projects, many inside and outside of government have tracked the progress of the Quicksilver initiatives.

Melissa Wojciak, staff director for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy, said Davis thinks the projects are going better than expected.

'There was some common thought in the community that many projects would fail, but they have been able to build on their early successes,' she said.

Wojciak said the e-government efforts still face two major hurdles: convincing Congress to embrace cross-agency projects and getting agencies to share money.

David L. McClure, vice president for e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government and a former director for IT management at the General Accounting Office, agreed.

'The greatest thing we have seen out of the 24 projects as a whole is there is a fundamental change in the business model being put into place for government IT,' he said. 'While there have been attempts in the past, this one is being backed up by OMB scrubbing the budgets and looking at overlap. That makes it real.'

He said e-government's main challenges are figuring out who owns the projects and how agencies will share the cost of maintenance'and getting Congress to fund them.

Results time

McClure said many projects are in a critical stage where they must demonstrate results.
Congress especially is interested in the payoff.

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), the ranking members of the Governmental Affairs Committee, earlier this summer asked GAO to review how OMB selected the Quicksilver projects and how the implementation is progressing.

'Such a review is important to understand how the initiatives are expected to support the goals of the President's Management Agenda and ultimately provide improved government service to citizens, businesses and other governments,' Lieberman and Thompson said in their letter to GAO.

John de Ferrari, assistant director for IT Management at GAO, said the study should be finished by the end of October.

Still, McClure, who left GAO as the study was beginning, said OMB's progress is clear and its successes are evident.

'Mark [Forman] has gotten farther along than many would have suspected at this time,' he said. 'There have been some starts and stops, but substantial progress is being made in re-examining how projects are funded and how business models are created.'

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