Plea Continues For Cross-Agency Spending

The following post was written by Tim Clark, editor and president of Government Executive.

It was a long day of technology talk at the Press Club yesterday. The security event (see below) began at 7:30 a.m., and another event, sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management ended at 7:30 p.m. I moderated both.

At the AFFIRM gathering, I moderated a panel on the topic, "Beginning a National Conversation: Using IT to Improve Government Services to Citizens."

Some might think that that conversation has been going on for close to a generation. But it turns out that what the AFFIRM organizers are really after is more engagement on the part of Congress.

Of course, Congress has been funding federal IT to the tune of $70 billion or so per year. And a lot of good things have happened:

• IRS electronic filing

• Electronic delivery of food stamps

• Veterans Administration development of electronic health records

• Fantastic military applications such as the very sophisticated systems for managing the Predator aircraft flying over Baghdad. I saw this first-hand during a trip to the Persian Gulf sponsored by the Defense Department last October.

Congress has funded these kinds of projects, and there have been big payoffs in agency capabilities. Less easy have been efforts to develop cross-cutting e-government systems. I observed that there have been at least two thrusts here:

• Measures to increase standardization and thus bring efficiencies within the four walls of government itself. An interesting example was provided at the morning GE-SANS event on cybersecurity: OMB’s mandate that agencies use a common set of security standards for Microsoft systems that command most of the government’s desktops.

• Measures to serve citizens of the United States that range beyond agency stovepipes. Citizens, especially needy citizens, often are beneficiaries of a number of government programs, yet often have had to travel from office to office, dealing with bureaucracy after bureaucracy, to get their due.

It’s notable that one effort to solve this problem now is a finalist in the Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government contest: Here’s what the Labor Department had to say about it this past Friday: “ offers extensive benefit program information for veterans, seniors, students, teachers, children, people with disabilities, dependents, disaster victims, farmers, caregivers, job seekers, prospective homeowners and more. … The Web site has attracted more than 25 million visitors since it went online in April 2002, increasing citizens’ access to benefit programs and information they may not have known existed.”

What a great idea.

Other projects have struggled. And one reason has been reluctance of Congress to fund them. Congress has never appropriated more than $5 million to fund such cross-cutting e-government projects. And it has resisted subventions among agencies, seeing the pass-the-hat method of funding as violating appropriations’ turf boundaries. One committee report last year said: “Many aspects of the initiative are fundamentally flawed, contradict underlying statutory requirements and have stifled innovation by forcing conformity to an arbitrary government standard.”

One of our panelists was Richard Burk, chief architect in the Office of E-Government and Information Technology at the Office of Management and Budget, who is also current president of AFFIRM. He, and others in the audience, expressed the fervent hope that Congress could step beyond the stove-piped approach endemic in its authorizing-committee and appropriations-subcommittee structure. That’s needed if Congress is to get behind governmentwide, and intergovernmental, IT initiatives.

We had a lone but game person from Congress on the panel, Charles M. Phillips, who is minority policy counsel on Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, responsible for technology and information policy issues under ranking minority member Tom Davis, R-Va.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Phillips said, in essence, that it would be a very cold day in the hottest precincts of Hades before Congress got behind multi-agency, cross-cutting IT initiatives. My words, but that was the gist. I think he and Davis probably approve of some of them, but most of Congress has no interest at all.

To its credit, AFFIRM isn’t giving up, and will continue to work on “beginning” the conversation.