Incentives will speed arrival of quality e-government

Ira Hobbs

Perhaps the most compelling vision for electronic government, besides allowing customers to conduct business 24 hours a day, is that government will be able to provide citizens with programs and services specific to each individual's need, rather than that of individual departments. The goal of e-government is to transcend traditional organizational boundaries and provide customers with true, one-stop shopping online.

Achieving this vision will be difficult for many reasons: lack of funding, turf wars, rapidly changing information technology and the need for more expertise and leadership inside and outside government.

The Agriculture Department has been working on the one-stop shopping concept for customers since before the Internet was popular. USDA's vision is for farmers, ranchers and rural citizens to one day be able to find all the information they need and apply for any program or service they require at a single, online location. Customers should not be concerned with which agencies are involved. Processes and systems would be integrated throughout USDA and give customers a seamless experience.

In fact, this vision extends beyond Agriculture. You can find it at the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and nonfederal agencies.

Firstgov.gov is an ambitious effort to bring all government information together in one online location. So far, the site has 30 million Web pages of government information. Other sites, such as students.gov, recreation.gov, seniors.gov and disasters.gov, are sites under development that will gather information from several agencies geared toward users' interests.

A more recent example is the announcement by the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council last month that the FedBiz-Opps.gov Web site will be the single point of entry for governmentwide procurement opportunities with the start of fiscal year 2002.

These initiatives are the first steps toward an e-government that will be far more efficient, cost effective and citizen-oriented than the organizational silos that exist today.

Even so, the sites I mention are only first steps. It remains to be seen how fast other significant steps will come. As compelling as the vision of e-government is, the reality is that we have a very long way to go before government is fundamentally changed. In most cases, agencies will continue to put programs and services online that are divided by the same boundaries that exist today, and to heck with the citizens. I say this, in part, because the cross-agency and intra-agency coordinating and collaborating required to fully integrate service delivery demands vastly different incentives than those driving agency managers today. We need budget reform to support cross-agency initiatives.

But unless and until federal managers earn recognition for more collaborative, cross-agency programs, expect them to spend their time working inside their organizational silos. As long as performance measures are program- and agency-specific, most managers will feel compelled to focus internally, even though their agencies and their customers would clearly benefit from the results of efficient collaborations.

Put as simply as possible, incentives for agency managers and employees must be revised to align with the vision of integrated service delivery for e-government. Congress and the Bush administration, too, must take part in creating those incentives.

Ira Hobbs is acting chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.


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