INTERVIEW: Kathleen Adams, SRA's e-government champion

Five factors impede e-gov's progress

Kathleen Adams

Moving from the public sector to the private sector hasn't stopped Kathleen Adams from pursuing her interest in electronic government.

Last year Adams retired after 27 years of federal service to become vice president and deputy director of health systems at SRA International Inc. of Arlington, Va. She is also SRA's lead person on e-government.

Over the years, Adams has held many technical and managerial posts at the Social Security Administration and the Health Care Financing Administration. Her last federal post was assistant deputy commissioner for systems at SSA, where she managed a staff of 2,800 employees who ran systems that process more than a fourth of the federal budget. She led the agency's year 2000 effort and served as chairwoman of the Chief Information Officers Council's Year 2000 Committee.

Among her many honors, Adams received the 1999 Government Executive of the Year Award from GCN. In 1998 she earned SSA's highest award, the Commissioner's Citation.

Adams earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maryland in 1972. She has taken graduate courses at George Washington University.

GCN associate editor Patricia Daukantas interviewed Adams by telephone.

GCN:'The Social Security Administration and the Health Care Financing Administration will gain millions more beneficiaries in the coming years. How will they cope with the numbers of customers?

ADAMS: Beyond HCFA and SSA, a lot of agencies are facing and will probably continue to face staff reductions, and the workloads don't seem to be going away. Obviously, they're going to continue to use information technology to make up the shortfall and improve service delivery. Exploiting the Internet is really where it's at in terms of transforming service delivery and making government accessible seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Some people will always prefer to go to local offices or use the 800 number. But to the extent that agencies can offload straightforward transactions to the Internet, it will enable them to focus on assisting more complicated transactions or giving personal attention.

There are five major challenges to get from where most agencies are today to where they want to be.

The first doesn't have anything to do with technology; it has to do with rethinking how to deliver services and re-engineer the current way of doing business. The Internet provides the ability to make the government much more customer-centric. The approach to service delivery today is stovepiped and agency-centric.

Second, agencies need to think about how they coordinate service delivery between local offices, their 800 numbers and the Internet. You can have a customer do an Internet transaction in the morning and call the 800 number in the afternoon,
or visit a local office in the morning and send an e-mail message in the afternoon.

The next big issue is simplifying the forms currently in use. Many government forms are very complicated. Government workers who are highly trained and who have lots of experience understand these forms and know how to ask the public questions to get the information they need. When you want to move to self-service and get people to input answers over the Internet, you need to rethink how you ask the questions. If they're not understandable and if the Web site isn't designed with an intuitive look and feel, people won't be able to provide the information. They're going to abandon the transactions in midstream. That's not what you want.

The next challenge is security, privacy and authentication. The public has to be absolutely assured that their transactions are secure and private before we can move to government transactions over the Net.

Last are the issues of infrastructure and bandwidth. You need to make sure the infrastructure is there to support the traffic. If everybody wants to do transactions, you're not going to be wildly successful if you can't keep your site up.

GCN:'Can government make all transactions fully electronic? Are there some functions that must always rely on personal contact or physical signatures?

ADAMS: In some ways the capabilities of technology may be ahead of public policy and legal considerations. Signatures are a means of authenticating that people are who they say they are, and a signed document serves as a record in the event there are any legal issues down the road.

There are, under law, a number of proofs that you have to produce to get a Social Security card, such as your birth certificate. And right now, birth certificates are not in electronic form. They're in paper form. So I think it's going to be a long time before all transactions are electronic because we need to work our way through the policy and the legal issues.

GCN:'Do you think the federal government should move faster to adopt public-key infrastructures and electronic signatures?

ADAMS: Agencies are proceeding cautiously because security and privacy are such important issues.

When you think about the government's responsibility to protect the privacy of the very personal information it has, this gets to the heart of our democratic form of government.

The government's use of PKI is evolving, and it's not as widespread as many people thought it would be by now. This is in part because of the initial cost of the public and private keys for every citizen.

GCN:'Will smart cards and biometric devices ever be practical for transactions between agencies and citizens?

ADAMS: It does sound a little Orwellian. I think there's going to be a serious public debate over these issues, and not just in the government arena, but in the business transaction arena.

Ultimately we're going to see a combination of PKI, smart cards and biometrics to authenticate all types of government and business transactions over the Net.

GCN:'Which agencies do the best job of providing electronic-government services, and which need the most improvement?

ADAMS: All the agencies are providing information over the Web. Some of them are further along at piloting transaction processing over the Net. Only about half of the agencies have an e-government strategic plan. Probably we need to get to the point where all the agencies are looking at that.

But I have seen a lot of energy and focus on e-government issues at the chief information officer level and above in the last six months. Once we got through the year 2000 crisis, the focus shifted to exploiting the Internet to improve the way the government delivers services.

I think the FirstGov initiative that the General Services Administration has launched will shine a light and act as a catalyst by attracting more people to government Web sites. But it's also going to put pressure on the agencies to make sure they manage their site content better and keep the information up to date.

GCN:'Will the year 2000 conversion effort become a model for tackling other large, seemingly intractable IT problems, such as work force and security issues?

What's More

  • Age:49

  • Family: Husband and two college age sons

  • Pet: Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever

  • Last book read: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

  • Favorite Web site:

  • Leisure activities: Running, biking, golfing and attending Bowdoin and Dartmouth lacrosse games

  • Worst job ever: "Packing cups coming off the assembly line on the midnight shift one summer."

ADAMS: Oh, absolutely, and I think in some ways it already has been a model. The lesson that we learned from the Y2K approach is that you can accomplish a lot across government by working together, particularly in addressing cross-cutting issues, and by sharing lessons learned.

E-government is really about transforming government, and that requires cooperation among departments and agencies. If it's not a coordinated approach, we're just perpetuating the stovepipes.

The CIO Council committee structure attempts to take the Y2K model and work across the major departments and agencies to coordinate these issues.

GCN:'You've been working in the private sector for about a year now. Have your views on e-government changed?

ADAMS: Not a bit. Electronic government is going to happen'there's no question about that. The question is, when is it really going to take hold?

I just hope we use this opportunity to transform the way the government works and to make it more customer-centric.

It would not be as successful if we wound up with all the old stovepipe systems available over the Internet. That wouldn't be electronic government to me. That wouldn't be an effective use of technology to transform the way the government works, the way the citizens have access to it and the way the government delivers services to the citizens.

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