Negotiations renew hope for e-gov

OMB makes headway in convincing appropriations staff of programs' benefits

These staffers really wanted to understand how e-government works. This was not a value judgement, or [a discussion] about money.' Karen Evans, OMB

Rick Steele

Five budget cycles into e-government, the Senate finally seems to be grasping the finer points of the administration's effort to make agencies act more like businesses.

For five years, funding requests for the 25 Quicksilver projects and the E-Government Fund mostly ran into a wall on Capitol Hill. But this year, Office of Management and Budget officials say, congressional staff members for the first time didn't focus on whether e-government is valuable as a concept, but wanted to know about benefits the initiatives bring to taxpayers.

'This was the most progress we've made with the Hill,' said Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and IT. 'These staffers really wanted to understand how e-government works. This was not a value judgement, or [a discussion] about money.'

Evans, her staff and some officials from the Veterans Affairs Department met with staff members of the Senate Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee late last month to explain why lawmakers should approve the transfer of agency funds to support e-government projects.

VA spending bill

The Senate version of the VA spending bill, as it stands now, includes some of the same provisions limiting agencies' ability to transfer funds for e-government as last year. Lawmakers did not include any funding for e-government initiatives.

'The committee is not convinced these initiatives add value to the Department of Veterans Affairs,' according to the Senate report issued with the bill.

The report noted that VA's e-government obligations rose 60 percent from fiscal 2005 to 2006, and the department's funding request increased again by almost 6 percent for 2007. 'The committee is concerned the funds needed for this program are growing at an alarming rate, while the utility to the VA is taking the opposite track. Future budget requests for e-government initiatives should include a detailed explanation of how they directly benefit the Department of Veterans Affairs.'

The House version of the VA bill doesn't mention these concerns but, like many bills last year, it would require VA to receive approval of the transfer from the committee.

If OMB can get VA subcommittee staff members to understand the benefits of the projects and pass that information on to other subcommittee clerks, the committees might ease up on the restrictions.

Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management, said the committee staff members would check out some of the things OMB brought to their attention and likely would discuss it with other subcommittee staff members before getting back to OMB with any questions.

'I understand OMB and the VA were both very forthcoming and helpful,' said a Senate Appropriations Committee spokeswoman. 'Everyone is cooperating fully at this time, and a lot of progress was made at [the] meeting.'

The spokeswoman added that it was too early to comment on whether the restrictions would be removed or reduced.

'Discussions are ongoing about e-gov, and OMB is continuing to answer the committee's questions,' the spokeswoman said.

The language in the VA bill actually is one of the least restrictive provisions on e-government Congress has attached to spending bills. The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education department spending bill would require that the agencies covered by this bill:
  • Submit a reprogramming request

  • Require career officials to submit certification that attests to the accuracy of estimated savings from the e-government initiatives

  • Show that the benefits resulting from the proposed transfer of funds exceed the benefits from using the funds for their original purpose.

The Treasury, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development; and Commerce, Justice and State department bills also include restrictions.

One agency CIO, who requested anonymity, said the provisions are not aimed at the agencies themselves, but at OMB.

'We raised the issue to our subcommittee, and they said it was not about us,' the CIO said. 'For whatever reason, Congress is not satisfied with the information OMB is providing. I don't know why, and I don't know if the language will get watered down.'

OMB annually has to fight to remove or reduce restrictive provisions in agency spending bills that target how agencies fund e-government.

Administration officials for years have tried to educate the Hill about e-government but have had little luck in getting their message across. While they have had some success, almost all 25 E-government projects have been delayed or affected.

Meeting goals

For the previous four years, congressional appropriators never fully appropriated the E-Government Fund at the administration's request'coming up about $87 million short of the $100 million goal.

Dan Chenok, a former OMB official and now a vice president at SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., said OMB's progress may be a function of two factors: the administration's focus on explaining why e-government is important, and the time it takes to educate the Hill.

'One of the things appropriators said when we went up there in 2003 was [that] this will not be quick-fix thing,' said Chenok, who left OMB in 2004 as the branch chief for information policy and technology in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. 'They said it would take several budget cycles for them to get comfortable with what we were talking about. They want OMB to demonstrate why this different approach will have benefits. They are finally able to talk to appropriators at a level they can relate to.'

Evans said that, this time, subcommittee staff members did their homework and were prepared for the conversation.

'This year, we got to a level of granularity that we never reached before,' Evans said. 'We talked about how we get value, and what the oversight process is.'

She added that she was confident the committee has good information from OMB about the projects, and 'they understand how to use the information collectively and make recommendations.'

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