Polices and practices: Promises, promises keep e-gov bottled up

Jason Miller

At a recent pep rally the Office of Management and Budget held for the 25 Quicksilver initiatives, project leaders and staff celebrated their e-government successes. But after the backslapping and cheers ended, most of the talk turned to the question of funding and how to get more of it.

Mark Forman, OMB's e-government czar, is probably sick and tired of explaining how there is plenty of money to go around in the nearly $60 billion IT budget for 2004. But project leaders keep pushing back milestones because they say they don't have the money to get the work done.

Projects are stymied by congressional and White House inaction. The E-Government Act of 2002 authorized $345 million for e-government over four years. But congressional appropriators allocated only $5 million for the e-government fund in 2002 and again in 2003, down $40 million each year from the administration's request.

All of this sends a mixed message to agency management. The White House and Congress support e-government with a wink and a smile, it seems.

As Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), one of the more IT-savvy congressmen on Capitol Hill, recently said, e-government doesn't get you re-elected. So expending political capital on it is a low priority for legislators.

It is easy to fault Congress for not appropriating the funds, as e-government isn't on very many lawmakers' radar screens, but the White House also shares some of the responsibility.

A spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee said the administration made no late push to get the $40 million restored to the fund. And Davis said the administration 'gets what it wants' when it comes to the budget. 'The administration wrote the budget,' he said. 'There will be a supplemental appropriations bill, and money for e-government could be in that, too, if the administration wants it.'

These events show a disconnect between Forman's message and the message being sent by his bosses.

For e-government to work, the White House needs to expend some political capital to gain congressional support. And agency chiefs need to be more forthcoming with existing funds.

The three project managers who received a portion of the $5 million fiscal 2002 e-government fund said the little bit of money made a huge difference for their projects.

Even an appropriation of a few hundred thousand dollars sends a powerful message to project partner agencies.

Forman frequently talks about how the public benefits from and is clamoring for e-government. He often refers to two recent polls as evidence that citizens are ready and waiting for it. One by the Council for Excellence in Government found 76 percent of all Internet users have visited a government Web site and 61 percent say e-government will improve the way the government operates.

Another survey by the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation found 49 percent of respondents believe the Internet improves the way they interact with the federal government.

But until Congress and the most senior White House officials realize it takes more than good intentions to achieve anything, the movement toward e-government will continue to be like the song in the Heinz ketchup commercial: 'Anticipation.'

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