E-Gov Bill Compromise Getting Closer

E-Gov Bill Compromise Getting Closer

Congressional leaders and the Bush administration appear close to resolving the debate about the role of a federal chief information officer and the priority that agencies should give to e-government.

Recent statements by administration and congressional leaders suggest the two sides share a similar vision of e-government, and both have expressed willingness to work out their differences in pending e-government legislation.

"There is broad agreement that we need to develop focused leadership, establish funding sources for innovative initiatives, better train government workers in information technology and take steps to ensure that the privacy of the public is protected as we develop a modern e-government," said Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas.

Both sides have been focusing on the E-Government Act of 2001, co-sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont. Turner introduced a companion bill July 11 in the House of Representatives. Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., has indicated he will put the bill on the calendar this year.

At a July 11 hearing on the e-government bill before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, information technology industry leaders, members of Congress and Sean O'Keefe, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, all offered testimony supporting the need for e-government.

E-government can provide services and information faster and more efficiently and could save the government money, participants agreed. They also agreed that ensuring the security of data and improving administrative processes before automation are fundamental to successful e-government.

"There is a lot of common ground here, and that is great news. The need for e-government, the potential for it and the priority of it is shared by the administration and the leaders of this committee," said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government, a Washington nonprofit organization that advocates for e-government.

At the hearing, O'Keefe indicated the administration was willing to negotiate with congressional leaders.

"I look forward to working with the committee to fashion [the bill] in a way that facilitates the president's goals," O'Keefe said. The president wants citizen-centric e-government that facilitates business-to-government transactions and intergovernmental relations and automates internal government processes, he said.

Lieberman would like to move his bill along quickly.

"We would like to begin negotiations with OMB as soon as possible," said Dan Gerstein, the senator's spokesman. "We'd like to put [the bill] on the schedule for passage this year."

The role of a federal chief information officer and the size of an e-government fund for interagency projects are the most prominent issues to be resolved. The e-government legislation calls for a CIO to run a new Office of Information Policy and report to the OMB director.

In contrast, the administration has said the deputy director for management will be the federal CIO. The administration also created the position of associate director for information technology and e-government within OMB and appointed Mark Forman to the position.

As associate director, Forman is responsible for a host of tasks, including administration of the e-government fund and oversight of IT implementation throughout the federal government.

The administration has proposed spending $100 million from an e-government fund between 2002 and 2004, while the legislation calls for spending $200 million annually during the same period.

The size of the e-government fund matters, because the government itself is large, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, Arlington, Va. But "what that exact number is, I don't think anyone knows," she said.

E-government supporters were pleased that O'Keefe expressed willingness to compromise. "I think the issue now is just working out the details," McGinnis said.

Turner also signaled a move toward common ground by introducing the companion e-government bill in the House. In the last legislative session, his e-government bill called for a federal CIO reporting directly to the president.

"Mr. Turner seems to be willing to do what he thinks the administration will buy," said Dan Heinemeier, president of the Government Electronics & Information Technology Association, an Arlington, Va., industry group.

The willingness of the two sides to negotiate means "they weren't going to let their differences stand in the way of getting something accomplished," said Mike Dunham, director of the Center for eGovernance at the National Academy of Public Administration, Washington.

The academy is an independent, nonpartisan organization chartered by Congress to help federal, state and local governments be more effective. Its president, Robert O'Neill Jr., is serving as the administration's de facto CIO until the deputy director for management is named.

Despite the optimism that compromises are forthcoming, it's uncertain what they will be.

"That's the million-dollar question," said David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who has not reintroduced his e-government bill in this legislative session.

Davis "wants to give the administration time to flesh out their strategy when it comes to a federal CIO. He thinks the administration deserves a chance to see if its approach works," Marin said. "He'll give them until the fall, at least."

Gerstein said Lieberman needs the administration to clarify Forman's role, as well as O'Keefe's assertion that the legislation doesn't do enough to tie the goals of e-government to agency performance objectives.

"We don't think there is anything in the bill that contradicts that principle," he said. "We'd be interested in hearing from OMB how they think the bill contradicts that, and we'd have an open mind to potential changes" to the legislation.

Turner said he's open to suggestions from the administration as well. "Measurable performance goals are becoming more and more widespread in government, and it may be that they are appropriate here," he said.

Gerstein, however, said it's unclear why the administration still wants the deputy director for management to be called the CIO if Forman essentially has all the responsibilities within OMB for information technology and e-government. "Until we have a clearer picture, it's hard to comment on how that position fits into our perspective," he said.

Some IT industry organizations have softened their stance on e-government, especially with regard to the role of the federal CIO.

ITAA officials first said they wanted a separate office for the federal CIO to make sure IT issues got sufficient attention within OMB, where budget issues can overshadow management concerns. Now, ITAA has indicated that a strong leader within OMB would be sufficient to lead IT efforts, as long as that person has the resources and clout to get things done.

The CIO "should be at OMB, but who they report to is less important than getting on with it," Grkavac said.

"We have been pleased by how much time they [at OMB] are spending on management issues," she added. "Sean O'Keefe has clearly shown that he is very engaged in IT. It looks like that is going to continue."

McGinnis agreed. "There's no question that e-government is one of their top priorities. I can't imagine that an agreement can't be reached."

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