House approves overhaul of e-mail for Cyber-Congress

E-mail for House offices will be totally overhauled under House
Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Cyber-Congress" plan, giving members a common directory
and on-line collaboration.


Integral to the plans is the purchase of new PCs for all 435 House members' offices.


The House Oversight Committee earlier this month unanimously approved the House systems
upgrade proposal, which it dubbed the Office 2000 Project.


The first phase will create an "Internet-like network aimed at upgrading the way
the House of Representatives conducts its business," said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers
(R-Mich.), who has spearheaded the Cyber-Congress effort.


The new system would standardize the nine e-mail systems now used by House members.
"What we're hoping to have is a common directory for our e-mail system, which is
probably the largest application on the Hill," said Ken Miller, director of House
Information Resources.


"We do have Housewide e-mail, but no directory," Ehlers said. The systems are
capable of simple mail correspondence and are cumbersome, so they are seldom used, he
said. Ehlers said he uses e-mail with his staff but not with other members, because it is
not efficient.


"This will be a messaging system rather then just e-mail," Ehlers said. It
will allow a number of people to interactively work on a document, he added.


In an description to the House Oversight Committee, Cyber-Congress project manager Judy
Boonstra wrote that the new system "will provide the medium through which offices can
easily exchange not only messages with attached and/or embedded documents, but also fax
messages, telephone messages, scheduling information, task assignments, news bulletins,
administrative forms, and even conferencing and discussion information,"


Miller put it more simply: "What we're doing is moving to a network-centric
approach."


None of the individual House offices will have to pay for the equipment. Instead,
funding is included as part of the fiscal 1996 Legislative Branch appropriations bill,
which President Clinton has signed into law.


Ehlers said the new system actually will be less expensive than the legacy systems.


House offices will be able to choose among a Pentium machine, an Apple Macintosh, or an
IBM PowerPC, officials said.


The House Chief Administrative Office will use contracts it has with Intelligent
Solutions in Falls Church, Va., and Telos Corp. in Herdon, Va., to supply products for the
Office 2000 Project.


But While the Cyber-Congress plan is intended to increase House efficiency, Ehlers
acknowledged that some members will not join their counterparts on the congressional
information superhighway.


"If they don't want to deal with it, they don't have to," Ehlers said.


The plan fits proposals made by Gingrich (R-Ga.) when he first became speaker. He said
he would like the House to make greater use of computer technology to set agendas and to
enable the leadership to keep tabs on the House pulse on major issues.


While Gingrich set the framework for the Cyber-Congress, much of the specifics have
been left to others. Ehlers, chairman of the House Computer and Information Services
Working Group, has been the most vocal backer of the plan.


Besides the PC network, the bill also includes a one-time, $1.5 million allocation for
the National Digital Library project at the Library of Congress. Through that project, the
library has been converting many of its famous collections to digital CD-ROM.


In technology, the House lags behind the usually conservative Senate, which also has
upgrade plans under way. But House plans come just as the Senate is reviewing its sytems
top-to-bottom and developing a new strategic plan, Senate officials said.


"We're engaged in a major look at technology in the Senate and the development of
a strategic plan for where we go now," said Paul D. Steel, director of information
systems and technology for the Senate. "It's an attempt to look at where we've been
and where we want to go."


Steel's staff is looking at upcoming technology and trying to forecast Senate IT
operations over the next five to 10 years, Steel said.


The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue next month with
additional hearings early next year, Senate officials said.


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