Another View: The perils of cross-government IT

Frank McDonough

Most government organizations have made good progress over the past 10 years in building portals, placing forms on the Internet for electronic access, and handling simple, individual transactions such as submitting tax returns through intermediaries. Some now say we are passing through the low-hanging-fruit phase. The 'easy' work is behind us.

Governments often hit the wall as they attempt cross-agency and cross-government transactions. One reason is that many of these initiatives are very complex. Perhaps they are too complex.

Agency culture, incentive systems that maintain the stovepipe culture, lack of security and privacy protections, and the inability to authenticate the identity of the individual on the other end of the transaction are other major reasons for the slow progress in intergovernmental systems.

There are other less obvious factors as well. Looking worldwide it is easy to see that leaders of nations are losing interest in e-government. Elected officials were early champions of e-government. Some made progress, but the attention of the head of a nation cannot be maintained indefinitely. Lacking presidential support, the already difficult task of intergovernmental management becomes even more problematic.

Also, citizen use of the new transaction services is lower than expected. While 'hits' on government portals are rising, sometimes dramatically, the limited use by the public of latter-stage e-government capabilities is raising concern.

For example, the highly regarded, award-winning Grants.gov has few customers so far.

The normal response is to create a citizen awareness or marketing program. This may be what is needed, but could there be an underlying problem suggesting that citizens may not want every electronic service the government offers? Or, perhaps there is a lack of trust that the government will ensure the security of personal information.

Some progress is being made. The Disaster Management, Federal Bridge, Federal Student Aid, Grants.gov, GovBenefits, Recreation One-Stop, and USA Jobs projects are recognized as important accomplishments

Yet, most of these link to other sites when a transaction is required. Users encounter a series of sites without a common look and feel. Time-consuming trial and error are required to complete the transaction. A lot more work can and will be done in these systems in the years ahead.

The agencies in the Homeland Security Department retain control over their computing resources and application systems. It is hard enough to integrate when all of the resources and systems capabilities are inside one organization. How much more difficult will it be to integrate when the resources and systems are spread across multiple organizations with distinct cultures and missions?

But things are improving. Today we know more than we did in 1988; and we know lots more about what we now call intergovernmental systems than we did a year ago. It is safe to assume that we will continue to increase our understanding in the months and years ahead.

Frank McDonough is the vice president for intergovernmental solutions of Guerra, Kiviat, Flyzik & Associates Inc. of Oak Hill, Va.

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