How to fix what's holding up e-government

Don Upson

Federal decision-makers need to do more walking and less talking if they're serious about clearing the obstacles to electronic government.

Lately, debate has centered on whether the roles and authorities of chief information officers are sufficient. CIOs could work more powerfully in a different management structure, but the real obstacles to e-government are caused by the tendency of departments to operate as stovepipes. They rarely consider working as connected enterprises.

Let's look at a few examples:

Integrated criminal justice information systems have been only partly successful, not because of the limits of technology but because of the culture of law enforcement. Courts, police, parole officers and corrections do not work well together, either locally or across jurisdictions.

The use of computers in schools is too often discussed separately from education. The issues aren't hardware or an e-rate program; technology in the classroom is the easy part.

The hard part is leadership, vision and an orchestrated program involving all stakeholders'teachers trained in technology, children who all have equal access to technology and parents possessing the tools to help children use technology.

Many boundaries

Using the Internet to improve health care is not constrained by the ability of technology to carry information quickly and securely. It is limited by the inability of doctors to share their experience and practice thanks to 50 jurisdictions' failure to bridge policy and legal boundaries.

These topics should be addressed by a president who understands the relationship between technology and improving government, and by a Congress that supports fundamental change and reform.

Congress attempted to create authority for technology management via the Chief Financial Officers Act and the Information Technology Management Reform Act. Neither has been executed well. And neither granted CIOs sufficient authority to overcome the policy issues that technology causes. But the laws do offer a foundation on which the next president can build.

Here is my proposal:

First, establish in each department an assistant secretary for management and technology. These individuals would have a seat at the table of the secretary or departmental chief executive.

Second, the president ought to require that every policy proposal include a study on the role of technology in the particular issue. That would give the CIOs the needed policy hooks, without which technology will remain on a separate track.

Third, empower the new assistant secretaries with management authority over departmental computing and communications.

Fourth, establish a dual reporting status for this position, first to the secretary and second to the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget or, better yet, a new special assistant to the president.

For starters, members of this interagency management group would frame a common operating environment, create standards, develop and implement a digital signature standard, and see to data and infrastructure security. Include state and local representatives and perhaps a few private sector individuals on this council.

Such an organization would create ownership, a sense of being part of something important and larger than stovepiped departmental functions. It would create an environment for e-government to work.

Procurement also needs further reform. Today agencies and departments buy and sell goods to themselves and other agencies and departments. A better way would be an independent General Services Administration housing a highly skilled procurement work force managing the majority of procurement vehicles.

With this model, CIOs would have real power within their organizations and also be part of a larger e-government program.

The so-called seat at the table is important because cultures at the federal level are strong. But at its core, e-government is about recalibrating government to the immediate needs of a new economy.

Government reinvention efforts are good, but they are the equivalent of finely tuned instruments playing tired, old songs. E-government demands a whole new score.

Don Upson is Virginia's secretary of technology.

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