As part of his government reform plans, then candidate for president George Bush promised to ask for $100 million for e-government, way back in June 2000.
This pledge became one of the most talked about and watched parts of this administration’s management agenda.
Time and again, the administration asked for tens of millions of dollars, and Congress came back with $3 million to $5 million. Additionally, each year lawmakers placed more severe restrictions on how the administration spent money on e-government.
The Hill wasn’t the only place the administration encountered roadblocks. Agencies were not always willing partners, especially early on.
Despite several obstacles, current and former federal officials all agreed that e-government’s impact was significant and changed the government for the better.
“The focus has been on getting the foundational types of activities done,” says Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget’s E-Government and Information Technology administrator. “Initially agencies were looking at the enterprise as an agency or component. Now they look at the enterprise as the entire government. The promise of a citizen-centered government has been realized.”
Mark Forman, the first e-government administrator and now a partner with KPMG, says the number of technology and program management problems when he took office in 2001 were great.
Forman remembers there were a lot of redundant buys, few agencies were using enterprise architectures to plan and manage their technology investments, agencies were implementing systems independently of each other and cybersecurity barely registered on many chief information officers’ radars.
“Agencies were automating management problems and not fixing them,” Forman says. “I am surprised that we’ve had so much success. It’s almost like we did it on a shoe string budget. We had to do a lot of governance work and set up processes to make this work.”
Forman says most of the problem areas now are in much better shape. He rates most areas an 8 or 9 on a scale of 10.
“We were living in a decades old organizational structure that no longer matched the way information is managed,” he says. “The administration spent the last eight years busting down these silos. And the next administration will continue to do this.”
Evans says some of the most successful e-government projects were in the government-to-citizen portfolio and government-to-business portfolios. Evans says projects such as Grants.gov, Recreation One Stop and USA Services really changed the way the government connects with citizens.
“We had a lot to achieve and a lot to realize,” Evans says. “We went from adoption to usage to measuring customer satisfaction. We are moving beyond the satisfaction rates of many commercial sites.”
Under the government-to-business portfolio, Evans says projects such as E-rulemaking and Business Gateway are among the most successful and have showed value to the business community.
Evans says the other two portfolios-government-to-government and internal efficiencies and effectiveness-were less successful for a host of reasons.
She points to the challenges of coordinating between levels of governments, and the culture change inside the federal government as some of the biggest obstacles.
“What really had to happen with internal efficiencies and effectiveness projects was to clearly demonstrate their value to people who know their business,” Evans says. “Payroll was pretty easy from concept, but then there are a lot of variations of the pay scale themselves. People agree with you, but they don’t want their mission encumbered, so you have to be clear about value and really clear about how it affects each and every agency.”
Evans says OMB’s experience with the consolidation of payroll providers provided important lessons learned for future human resources and financial management consolidation initiatives.
“I think the next team will look at where we are and what foundational things are in place and it will morph again,” she says. “The platform is there and is ready to move to the next generation services and technology.”
But the next administration also has to be careful not to fall into the same potholes that this one did, especially with Congress.
Evans and Forman both pointed to the limited support from the Hill, especially from the appropriators, as one major reason why e-government did not achieve more.
“There was no problem with communications with people interested in government reform,” Forman says. “In the E-Government Act, we got everything we wanted. But the problems that existed on the Hill were related to the funding processes. They fund in islands of automation. It took us too long to figure out how to deal with that structure. There were things we could have done with the Budget committee that we didn’t do.”
Evans adds that any management initiative needs to be a partnership with lawmakers from the beginning.
Ed Meagher, a former deputy CIO for the departments of Interior and Veterans Affairs, says the lack of centralized funding had a clear affect on e-government.
“The biggest issue was not going down very early to the Hill and convincing them of the wisdom, the return on investment and improvements that would occur from these projects” he says. “They attempted to do it by executive fiat, and I think that ran into some issues that caused implementations to be more difficult and less successful.”
Meagher added that not having a centralized fund was a symptom of not having gained consensus with other stakeholders, and especially the Hill.
One former government official close to the e-government process, who would only speak on condition of anonymity because their company would not let them officially talk, says funding and Hill support were important, but some of e-government’s problems were OMB’s fault.
“One of the problems has been is this administration has been collaborative to a fault,” the official says. “They didn’t knock any heads together. Folks who just didn’t do it regardless of the scorecard and they needed to address it more to the point where someone would lose their job over not doing it. By not doing that, it sends a message that while this is a priority, it is not among the highest priorities.”
The former official adds that the future of e-government projects depend on making CXOs better understand their importance.
“E-government and IT enables the rest of the business processes,” the official says. “It suffered in the beginning because it was being seen as only an IT effort. CFOs, human resources and acquisition folks didn’t pay a lot of attention to it.”
Meagher adds that getting the business owner on board should have been the first thing the administration did.
“It’s clear to me, in IT, one of several critical components that is necessary to bring in complex, critical systems is that you assign authority, responsibility and funding to an identifiable person and hold them and their organization accountable for delivery,” Meagher says. “When you don’t have that aggregation and try to do complex and intricate things by committee, they tend to be less successful.”