Online extra | Delay in e-gov funding puts some projects in a bind

Four of five federal agencies received approval from the House and Senate Appropriations committees to transfer funds to the managing partners of E-Government projects on June 30'the last day of the third quarter of the federal fiscal year. This was three months earlier than approval was granted last year, but it still put agencies in a bind.


Even with the quicker turnaround, nearly every e-government project, including E-Rulemaking, Grants.gov and the Integrated Acquisition Environment, felt some impact from the delay.


Some projects put off upgrades, while others had to do fewer outreach activities, federal officials said.


And the delays are becoming more commonplace as project managers now plan for funding lethargy.


'Grants.gov's program management office has program management controls in place to ensure that the initiative can stay operational and within budget,' said Terry Nicolosi, Grants.gov deputy program manager. 'Any potential and actual funding shortfall that impacts the initiative is analyzed, and an alleviation plan is constructed and communicated to [the Office of Management and Budget] and our governance board that is made up of the 26 federal grant-making agencies before being incorporated into our operating plan.'


The total funding that projects had to wait for from the four agencies'the departments of Commerce, Justice and Transportation and the Small Business Administration'was about $12 million. And the Office of Personnel Management still is waiting for approval, which is another $2.5 million.


The House and Senate, once again, have put provisions in 2007 spending bills that would require agencies to justify why they are transferring money for e-government projects.


The committees asked agencies to answer four questions before they would approve the transfer of funds, and those answers didn't satisfy committee staff.


'The committee did not think it was wise to approve a transfer without any index to determine success,' said Jenny Manley, a spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee. 'In the time period those agencies had to wait for approval, the committee repeatedly asked for any proof of how this program has been successful and whether it was providing a savings to the agencies, but that information was slow coming.'


The committee had to go back three times to get the answers they wanted, said a Senate Appropriations Committee staff member, who requested anonymity.


Lisa Westerback, Commerce's director for the Office of IT, Policy and Planning, said the questions were about funding amounts, which algorithm the managing partner used to allocate contributions from different agencies and where does Commerce fit in with the other agencies.


She added that the delay caused Commerce's President's Management Agenda score to drop in e-government and forced them to figure out a way to contribute beyond money.


Meanwhile, managing partners were left playing the waiting game as well.


'When delays in funding from partner agencies occur, initiatives have to adjust project schedules, which result in operational and implementation inefficiencies,' said an OMB official, who requested anonymity. 'In the case of E-Rulemaking, partner agency implementations to the Federal Docket Management System scheduled for quarter 2 and quarter 3 of 2006 were moved to quarter 4 of 2006 and 2007.'


The official added the change delayed by six months the availability of all federal rules to the public in a central online location.


E-Rulemaking is one of the projects that receives the most contributions from agencies. For instance, Commerce, Justice and Transportation were scheduled to transfer $825,000 each.


SBA's Business Gateway project had to postpone the launch of its new Web portal. It did unveil part of it last week, but most of will have to wait until September, said Christine Liu, SBA's CIO.


'After issues arose with the transfer of e-government funds, the Business Gateway team developed a modified spending plan for 2006 that incorporated an assumption that all agency contributions would not be received,' she said. 'The modified spending plan reflected reduced funding for data harmonization and outreach activities. Additionally, prospective features planned for the re-launch of the Business.gov portal were postponed, including a business personalization capability.'


The Health and Human Services Department's Grants.gov is another project that had to slow down its progress.


Nicolosi said last year the delay required the governance board to cut back on forms development, system enhancements and outreach efforts.


The General Services Administration's E-Authentication initiative receives on average $450,000 from each agency. The funding delay had had little effect, said Michel Kareis, E-Authentication's program executive.


'The E-Authentication initiative has prioritized spending to focus on growing the federation, continuing operations and maintenance support, and providing customer service,' Kareis said. 'Critical services continue as usual.'


Beyond the delay in getting approval, project managers must wait until the funds officially are transferred from one Treasury account to the other.


Project managers said this could take as little as two days to almost two months. Officials said it was important to get the paperwork in order as soon as possible so when the committees grant approval, the Treasury can process the transfer agreements.


Managing partners also have to spend the money fairly quickly because some funding expires at the end of the fiscal year.


One project official said last year when they received the money on Sept. 30'the end of the federal year'they had to work all night to get it obligated.


'OMB has worked jointly with the agencies and with the affected initiatives to develop and implement contingency plans to ensure operations continue smoothly and effectively,' the official said. 'Additionally, OMB meets routinely with affected agencies and initiatives to assess their ability to achieve results in light of funding issues.'


Those agencies that have to wait to receive approval could provide in-kind funding, such as technology they already own or personnel, Commerce's Westerback said.



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