The government lags behind on Internet spending

First, let's summarize what the report said. GAO spent a year collecting data on
expenditures in fiscal years 1994 through 1996 for Internet and BBS activities, the number
of government World Wide Web sites and BBSes, and the number of employees with Internet
e-mail and Web access. The expenditure data for Internet and BBS activities were estimated
because agencies do not typically account for these activities separately.


Of the 43 questioned, 42 agencies--every one except State--estimated spending a total
of about $349 million on Internet and BBS activities.


A solid 93 percent of this money provided employees access to the Internet and
established and maintained agency Web sites. The balance went to BBSes. Agencies reported
about 4,300 Web sites and 215 BBSes. Every agency had at least one Web site. Together the
42 agencies provided Internet e-mail access to about 1.7 million, or 50 percent, of their
civilian and military employees and Web access to about 1 million, or 31 percent, of their
employees.


IT surveys like this have been too rare in the decade since the retirement of GAO's
Wally Anderson, the last major advocate of the IT survey study.


There were few negative judgments in the report except for mild references to
widespread deficiencies in policy and management--no doubt harbingers of reports to come.


Now for what GAO left unsaid. A few minutes with a calculator will reveal some
interesting insights.


After NSF come a few surprises. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission at $1.40 is closely
followed by the Environmental Protection Agency at $1.38. Curiously, the Education
Department at $1.30 beat NASA's $1.20. NASA has a reputation for high technology and is a
major contributor to the Internet.


A number of large agencies were also well above average: the Commerce Department at
$0.75, the Energy Department at $0.68, the Housing and Urban Development Department at
$0.54, the Labor Department at $0.35, and the General Services Administration at $0.33.
Hovering just above the average were the Interior Department at $0.18, the Health and
Human Services Deparment at $0.17 and the Agriculture Department at $0.14.


All the articles I've read on this GAO study cite the $148 million spent by the Defense
Department. But they don't point out that this amounts to a three year total of 7 cents
per employee for the 2.2 million who report to the Pentagon.


The agencies GAO looked at in greater detail were on both sides of the
average--Interior and Commerce substantially above, the Social Security Administration
well below, at 3 cents per person.


Ten cents per person over three years is not much money. It is not hard to imagine why
the federal government has slipped behind the private sector in the rush to the Internet.
This is particularly unfortunate in that the federal workforce comprises mostly knowledge
workers.


Failure to spend on the Internet is like sending these troops into the high-tech
battleground with clubs and rocks.


Too many employees are inaccessible to the public electronically. In fact, they're
inaccessible to one another.


Greater access will increase exposure and accountability. As our functions and
responsibilities are identifiable via the Internet, citizens will know who we are and what
our duties are.


Perhaps one day any taxpayer will be able to ask what a civil servant has done and
judge for himself whether the work was effective and worth doing.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in
federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page
is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.


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