What IT money?

Thomas R. Temin

The Bush administration's proposed IT spending for fiscal 2004 is less than it seems. $59.3 billion is a big number. But it is only 2.2 percent more than what the administration expects to spend in 2003, and nearly all the increase is for the Homeland Security Department.

When officials first released the numbers last month, it appeared as if requested IT funds would grow by far more. But when the Office of Management and Budget IT team looked closely they found several billion dollars of 2003 spending that was for systems, but hadn't been previously counted as such.

Nearly all departments will face level or slightly declining funding for IT under the administration's proposal. That is, if the agencies get funding at all for systems. OMB, in the words of director Mitchell E. Daniels, believes much of the nearly $60 billion is misspent. It will withhold funds for systems requests if agencies don't justify them in sound business cases.

It's the classic carrot-and-stick approach. Congress may up the funds, but only here and there. Don't forget the Hill cut Bush's 2003 request for $45 million for the E-Government Fund to $5 million. E-gov spending controlled by OMB and a consortium of agencies simply doesn't pay off the way old-fashioned pork does.

You could look at this budget and ask, well, is the administration interested in e-government or not? The proposal is analogous to funding at NASA. Everyone is rah-rah for space exploration, but the budgets have been essentially flat for a decade.

It is fair of the administration to want good business cases and results, even if it requires that OMB staff members carefully read 1,400 of them. Conversely, it is a wise practice for agencies to make a case for their IT investments, even if they must pretend to have hard answers for all the questions suggested by their Exhibit 300s.

The IT budget plan for next year reflects this administration's approach to many things'simultaneously visionary and pragmatic. Yeah, the White House heads say, e-government is a great thing, buy they're not going to smash the piggy bank to pay for it.

If it's your program on the line, better get out the sharp pencils before OMB does.

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