Online government

Online government

The big picture remains elusive, but interactive sites are sprouting up across the federal landscape

By Richard W. Walker

GCN Staff

A few months ago, the General Services Administration's Office of Intergovernmental Solutions and several other agencies assembled a panel of government and private-sector information technology experts to ponder prospects for transforming government.

The premise of the program was that agencies could build on the momentum of the triumphant year 2000 date-code repair effort and use it to expand efforts to develop electronic government.

But the fading glow of the year 2000 success left a little gloom in the air. The victorious warriors were now facing another battle.

The panelists agreed that the struggle for efficient online government will be a long one, full of uncertainties. And at present, they lamented, e-government is almost nowhere.

'On a continuum of 100 percent, we're at 2 percent right now,' said Renato DiPentima, president of the government sector of SRA International Inc. of Arlington, Va., and a former deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration.

Harold Gracey, who recently left his position as acting chief information officer at the Veterans Affairs Department to become vice president of government affairs at of Germantown, Md., also was circumspect.

'I think we're still trying to decide what the color of the brick road is'whether it's yellow, red or gold,' Gracey told the group. 'You can have a conversation for days about what electronic government means and get five different answers.'

So where is e-government now? There are loads of Web pages that provide information, but only a few are interactive.

'We've developed a set of independent Web pages that are essentially content, as opposed to transaction- or interaction-based,' said G. Edward DeSeve, national industry director for the federal sector for KPMG International of New York and former acting deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. 'We're in the multiple-location, information-dissemination mode.'

'What we have today is the veneer,' said Roger Baker, CIO of the Commerce Department. 'What we don't do is tie those Web sites back to the systems of record that are keeping all the real information and driving all the real processes so that the customer can see the live data, transact with the live data and get real feedback from the system.'

"What we have today is the veneer," Commerce CIO Roger Baker said.

For the government to transform itself digitally, there has to be a huge shift from an agency perspective to a customer perspective, Baker said.

The panel shared a vision for e-government: Web sites that offer single points of transaction and interaction, or one-stop shopping with a browser.

'I think what we're moving to is a single portal,' DeSeve said. 'You'll shortly see proposals to create a single federal portal that will tie together the [uniform resource locators] of federal agencies, that will tag the data and allow it to be easily displayed in a single location.'

Eventually, he said, visitors will be able to do federal business over the Internet.

DeSeve gave an example: A single federal portal might provide a U.S. international traveler with data from across the government'travel advisories from the State Department, airport information from the Federal Aviation Administration or health advisories from the Health and Human Services Department.

But providing citizens with a single point of transaction for governmentwide data raises some tough questions.

How would such an interagency Web venture be funded?

'Just the fact that appropriations are fenced will keep agencies from doing a lot of work together to build customer-centric Web sites,' Baker said.

There could be new models for funding, DeSeve suggested; portals could be financed by the private sector with banner advertisements.

'That would be a very attractive commercial proposition,' he said. 'People would flock to that very quickly.'

The funding structure also is an impediment to intra-agency online projects.

At the VA, money is appropriated in stovepipes, Gracey said. 'There's medical care money, headquarters medical care money, benefits money, benefits-operations money, cemetery money and the rest. Tearing down the fences at an organization like the VA and many other government departments is really the challenge.'

Funding is a problem for internal IT projects as well.

It's about time

For example, for five years Commerce officials have been seeking, in vain, an appropriation of $5 million to rewire its 68-year-old headquarters building.

'It is just an archaic mess of copper and it needs to be fiber-optic,' said Baker, who is hopeful that funding may come through in the next fiscal year.

Other barriers to e-government's progress are cultural, by many accounts.

'From a management standpoint everybody is focused on their own segment of government, their own agency, their own bureau and they don't look across government and say, 'Who's doing what I do and how can I partner with them to build a more synergistic business?'' Baker said.

Treasury Department CIO Jim Flyzik agreed that the prospect of change is daunting for many in government.

'Getting the government to change processes is a huge, huge challenge,' he said. 'Anytime you go to an e-gov operation, it implies closing down existing operations.'

'Getting people to think differently is an issue,' said Gloria Parker, CIO at the Housing and Urban Development Department. 'I think a lot of people in government have been around a long time and feel like it's the way we do it and we don't change.'

One CIO recently was dismayed to find that a bureau in his agency viewed the use of online forms as experimental.

'Experimental? How can you look at the Internet as experimental in the year 2000?' the CIO said. There are many challenges. And the present standard will have to shift from agencies to consumers.

But digital government is on the move. It is sprouting here and there, visible in a myriad of small projects across the government.

Karen Hogan, director of Commerce's Digital Department initiative, compares the growth to a field of flowers.

'We're letting a million flowers bloom,' she said.

More than anything, e-government is energized by citizen demand. People are simply accustomed to interacting with commercial Web sites and want to do the same with government.

'We did focus groups with veterans and asked them how they wanted to interact with us,' Gracey said. 'We were surprised. Even older vets said they wanted to interact with us the same way they interact with [the commercial sector]'electronically.'

New projects abound.

At Commerce, the Bureau of Export Administration lets businesses apply for export licenses via the Web.

Instead of having to get an application, fill it out manually and mail it to the bureau, exporters can input the application data online, and it will be on a licensing officer's desk in a few hours rather than days or weeks.

Exporters have quickly taken to the new system.

Sixty percent of all license applications are electronic, and that number is rising. The goal is to go 100 percent paperless.

The National Institutes of Health has a Web site that provides data on more than 4,000 federally and privately funded medical studies.'The system was designed so that anyone can submit queries that generate results'even if they misspell search words.

At the Treasury Department, the Bureau of Public Debt sells $1.6 million in savings bonds a week on its Savings Bond Connection Web site.

And the Air Force Standard Systems Group has opened up an online IT superstore that lets federal buyers comparison shop for desktop PCs, notebook PCs and servers across more than 30 contract vehicles.

Digital government is happening.

'We don't move fast in government,' Gracey said. 'But we'll get there. We're moving in that direction.'

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