OMB makes new case to win Hill support for e-gov

Officials explain spending plans for 24 projects

Having failed over the past 41?2 years to convince Congress of the virtues of e-government, the Office of Management and Budget is making an unprecedented attempt to sell the idea to lawmakers and secure funding for fiscal 2006.

Agencies are slated to swap a little more than $192.9 million dollars among themselves to keep 19 E-Gov- ernment and five Line of Business initiatives running over the next eight months. But restrictive language in appropriation bills has put that funding in jeopardy and potentially could hamstring a number of high-profile projects, compelling administration officials to make their case to appropriations committee staff members like never before.

Staff for House and Senate appropriations committee members say now is the administration's best opportunity to promote the benefits of e-government. Congress opened the door for this dialogue after requiring OMB to submit a report detailing agency spending on these projects in the 2006 Treasury, Trans- portation, Housing and Urban Development and other related agencies spending bill.

OMB officials said they welcome this 'unprecedented level of transparency of how agencies are implementing and benefiting from the E-Government initiatives.' OMB officials are armed with a greater degree of detail than ever before'breaking spending down by agency and by project to make sure lawmakers get a clear picture of where the money is going.

Since mid-January, the appropriations subcommittee staff members have been meeting with every agency and with OMB officials to discuss how projects are spending money and what benefits agencies are receiving. OMB has called the meetings 'open and frank.'

And while this hate-love fest plays out on Capitol Hill, agencies are left to wonder whether lawmakers will approve funding for their projects'as some watch their bank accounts creep toward empty.

'We will have to re-evaluate what we can deliver this year,' said one project manager who requested anonymity. 'Some of the in-kind services we are receiving from agencies will continue, but we are looking for further guidance from OMB before any funds will be transferred.'

Funding delay

OMB asked project managers to report by Jan. 19 the effect the funding delay would have on their projects and made it clear that projects may have to wait until March 1 for new funds.

The delay affects mainly those projects that depend on interagency transfers. Projects such as Grants.gov, Integrated Acquisition Environment, GovBenefits, Business Gateway and E-Rulemaking could face shortages, putting them on hold or forcing managing-partner agencies to use agency discretionary funds to keep the systems running.

'If Congress finds out that one of the managing partners is footing the bill for the entire project, then they will have an issue,' said a former agency official once closely involved in one of the projects. 'Most projects are run hand-to-mouth and don't have a reserve fund.'

Overall, the delay affects about 30 percent of e-government funding, or about $57 million, agency sources said.

Additionally, Congress limited the amount of money the Defense Depart- ment could transfer for E-Government projects. Grants.gov deputy program manager John Etcheverry said he received a memo from DOD saying this year the department would not be transferring its share'about $452,000'to his project. Others initiatives likely will receive similar notices.

The E-Government program is in this fix because the appropriations committees'especially the House's'have never supported the administration's efforts. From not fully funding the administration's $100 million E-Government Fund re- quest to using agency spending bills to restrict the transfer of funds, the House has time and again tried to stymie e-government initiatives.

And in the Treasury, Transportation and HUD appropriations bill, lawmakers went a step further. Members placed a provision in the bill requiring OMB to submit a report detailing which agencies were transferring how much money and to which projects. The report also had to specify how projects were to use the funds and the relevance of the project to the agency contributing funds.

OMB submitted the report Jan. 5, and the committees had 15 days to review the report and approve the funding request.

'OMB is notifying how much each agency transferred for these purposes, and each appropriation subcommittee will give their sign-off for each agency,' said John Scofield, House Appropriations Committee spokesman. 'OMB understands that it is an approval. This is their chance to sell us on the programs, and we will listen.'

While OMB and lawmakers try to find common ground, project managers are in a holding pattern.

E-Rulemaking officials are among the few who have publicly said they are in trouble.

In a December letter, former En- vironmental Protection Agency CIO Kim Nelson and John Graham, an administrator in OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote that E-Rulemaking's 'available funding will expire in mid-February.'

EPA officials told contractor Lockheed Martin to stop development work on E-Rulemaking to make the money last longer, sources said.

Leaders of other programs, such as Grants.gov, also will have to figure out how the funding decrease and delay will eventually affect their projects.

'We are not at risk of closing the door, but we are not happy about this,' Etcheverry said. 'This will affect what we will do, but we will make this happen. We have to have a discussion with the 25 other agencies involved in this project and OMB about the priorities, and we will go from there.'

Moving forward

Others, such as Charlie Grymes, Rec- reation One-Stop project manager, said he got approval recently to begin receiving funds from agencies. He said his project would not be affected by the funding debate.

Some agencies are preparing funding agreements so that when Congress does give the OK, they'll be ready to get the agreements signed and start transferring funds.

'What Congress is doing is not inappropriate,' said the former agency official. 'But there is not a common vision or understanding. If Congress understands that e-government means its constituents are better served and money is saved, then they would be supportive. And that understanding must come from OMB, industry, agencies and the constituent groups.'

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