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Government Coordinates Online Programs

July 2002
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Projects focus on streamlining services, rectifying duplicate systems.

While the U.S. Defense Department continues its quest for transformation, federal agencies are undergoing a transformation of their own. Earlier this year, a task force, under the direction of the Office of Management and Budget, launched 24 e-government initiatives that will change the way citizens interact with agencies and bureaus. The goals of the effort are to make it easier for individuals and businesses to work with government agencies and to cut costs by eliminating procedural and information systems redundancy.

Existing and new technologies will play a key role in federal departments’ new online services and business practices. Government officials are interested in seeing middleware and Web services capabilities as well as software that supports knowledge management. Most agencies do not intend to develop their own systems but rather to purchase and use technologies that are already in the marketplace. However, they will develop processes so that the products can be used in a way that best supports customer-centric operations.

The e-government effort is part of President Bush’s five-part Management Agenda, which focuses on the government’s service to citizens. The task force, made up of representatives from 27 departments and agencies, began work in August 2001. By October, the President’s Management Council approved the group’s recommendations.

The 24 approved programs were derived from 71 interviews with more than 150 senior government officials, and federal employees identified nearly 200 potential projects. Choice of the final 24 programs was based on value to citizens, potential improvement in agency efficiency and the likelihood of deploying them within 18 to 24 months.

According to Mark Forman, associate director for information technology and e-government, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Washington, D.C., industry’s contributions to this effort are twofold. Agencies will need the technical expertise that companies bring, but they also will be looking at business best practices, he says.

“If a search capability is a Web service, then you don’t have to deal with a whole set of new services. We’ll buy the search. But we want to know how we can use them in conducting analysis. There are Web services being used by the marketplace, but we want to talk about payment, for example. Can we use a common payment means or accounting tool?

“The driving trend in industry is consolidation, but it’s not done the old way. Sometimes, it means integration. Sometimes it’s buy something once and use it many times. In our arena, it is more consolidation around the customer,” Forman explains.

Acknowledging that much of the information technology (IT) expertise today is in the private sector, Forman emphasizes that companies must partner and collaborate. “The innovation effort role is key … but it’s not just what to buy but how to use it. The government is a solutions buyer,” he shares. For example, companies that offer systems integration or data centers also need to share their expertise on the business processes that fit with the technology, he adds.

Companies that want to make their solutions known to agencies involved in the 24 initiatives need to conduct research, Forman offers, and the 2003 budget is a good place to start. “Go to the OMB Web site, look up the budget and look at the analytical part. See the IT strategy for each agency. … Find out where they are in their modernization blueprint. You’ll find some departments that haven’t figured out where their enterprise architecture is yet,” he says.

Speaking with the agency’s chief information officer or the person in charge of the modernization blueprint also will give companies valuable information. Forman suggests that firm representatives ask about the tough issues that an agency is grappling with then help fill a gap or solve a problem as the federal department is working through it.

Several government organizations are confronting the issue of information security, and that makes it a key issue in many agencies, Forman relates.

Although information assurance is of paramount importance, government decision makers today recognize the significance of other capabilities such as collaboration and knowledge management tools. Forman suggests that companies track what is going on in Congress so they will know the current priorities.

Close examination of the chosen initiatives also illuminates technologies that support the efforts and business processes that need to evolve for the full potential of technology-enabled services to be realized.

The 24 initiatives fall into four categories: government to citizen, government to business, government to government, and internal efficiency and effectiveness. They run the gamut from assistance programs to international trade process streamlining to disaster assistance and crisis response. Agencies involved range from the Interior Department to Health and Human Services.

In the government-to-citizen category, for example, eligibility assistance online will allow citizens to use a common Internet portal to identify government benefit programs from which they may be able to receive support. Initiative proponents believe this approach may save individuals a significant amount of time locating and filing for benefits. In addition, portal visitors may learn about additional benefits. They also estimate that service calls to the U.S. Labor Department will be reduced by 750,000 annually and $4 million a year will be saved by eliminating redundancy. An online screen tool for 100 benefit programs is scheduled to be available by the end of September. Online benefit application and customer relationship management will be consolidated; however, no date has been set for completion of that task.

Although taxpayers have been taking advantage of online filing for several years, the EZ Tax Filing initiative would offer this service free of charge. The initial deployment of an industry partnership is set to be in place in time for the 2002 tax filings.

Companies also will benefit from improvements in the tax arena under a government-to-business initiative. Beginning last February, businesses could file W-2s through the Internet. January 2004 is the target date for the initial implementation of 1120 e-file for businesses to facilitate end-to-end tax administration. Upon implementation, this initiative offers cost savings of up to $182 annually per small business. The Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration (SSA) could save as much as $16 million in staff, printing and mailing costs each year.

U.S. companies that export their products currently work their way through one or several of the 20 Web sites for assistance. The International Trade Process Streamlining initiative, proposed by the U.S. Commerce Department, would create a single site where new or existing exporters could be assisted electronically. An online collaborative workspace that consolidates all of the information gathered by trade specialists and disseminates through www.export.gov to small and medium exporters is scheduled to be available by mid-August.

Government agencies will be able to coordinate their efforts more effectively through the government-to-government initiatives. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s initiative involves a portal that would allow public and private organizations responsible for disaster preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation to obtain information. It also would be the single point of application for disaster assistance programs.

State and federal government agencies offer complementary benefit programs; however, when applying for specific services, citizens often must provide the same basic information to a variety of agencies. To address this problem, the SSA proposed the e-Vital initiative. It will expand the existing vital records online data exchange efforts between levels of government. The SSA estimates that millions of dollars will be saved annually through fraud detection from computer matching programs.

Several of the initiatives focus on using technology to reduce costs and improve government administration by employing industry best practices in areas such as supply-chain, financial and knowledge management.

For instance, the e-Travel initiative will allow government personnel to use a common travel management system. Current resources will be consolidated so planning and reimbursement cycles will be reduced and travel and improved budget information will be available at a lower cost. The Web Travel Authorization and Voucher System is scheduled to be in place by the end of June 2003.

Acquisition reform has been a much sought-after yet elusive objective for government and military agencies alike. Decision makers agree that simply automating old processes does not help departments gain all of the benefits that technology offers. Business processes must be changed, and this is a formidable challenge for any large organization.

The Integrated Acquisition Environment initiative is one step toward helping federal agencies realize the advantages of coordinated acquisition. An initial consolidated e-catalog is slated to be available by the end of September 2002. The directory of government and military contracts will simplify the selection process and leverage the bargaining power of agencies. By September 2003, the Federal Acquisition Management Information System is scheduled to be implemented. The Web-based system would be integrated with legacy systems and provide real-time data.

In addition to the category-specific initiatives, two projects address barriers to e-government success. One, known as e-Authentication, will devise a common interoperable identity authentication solution for all e-government solutions. Introduction of the initial gateway prototype is planned for the end of September 2002 with full deployment by September 2003.

The Federal Enterprise Architecture is the second overarching project. It will designate information and application interface standards intended to eliminate redundancies.

Forman says that many of the online services that agencies currently offer will continue; however, the goal is to design them to be “three clicks to service.” In addition, the duplication that currently exists needs to be rectified, and one way to accomplish this is by facilitating an online environment where citizens can provide information once and have it shared by the numerous agencies that need it.

Technology is only one component of the federal government’s move toward online service to the citizen. The other, the human factor, is equally important, Forman maintains. Although there are some challenges, he says most of the government employees that he’s encountered are anxious for the change. “They’re forming communities of practice. They’re coming into the work force and are used to an e-enabled work environment. The harder part is the people who are used to working in the paper world. So, we’re doing a lot of training and focusing on the buddy system,” he explains.

The other approach is what Forman calls the carrot-and-stick or honey-and-mustard method. Personnel who work toward adapting to the new business model are rewarded. “You’ve heard of the question, ‘Who moved my cheese?’ Well, the bulk of the federal work force is going after the cheese,” he says.

 

Additional information on the 24 e-government initiatives is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/inforeg/egovstrategy.pdf.

 

Gateway Gets a Facelift

Web surfers who have not seen FirstGov.gov lately have not seen FirstGov. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) launched a new look and feel to the federal government’s official Internet portal this year that simplifies online transactions and features customer channels for citizens, industry and the government.

The revamp was the result of site users’ comments and input gathered from focus groups. Visitors can connect to the information they are looking for faster and more accurately than with the site’s initial design, GSA officials say.

FirstGov.gov provides more than 51 million pages of Web-based federal, state and local government resources. To facilitate use, the home page features three sections: citizen to government, business to government, and government to government. Among the links of the citizens’ gateway are change of address, tax e-filing and Social Security Online. The business gateway offers links to information on business opportunities, business laws and regulations, and federal auctions and sales. Federal, state, local and tribal government employees can connect to information about grants, travel, government jobs and information technology. Electronic transactions, forms and services are now available.

Making government seamless to citizens across the jurisdictional boundaries is one of the goals of FirstGov, GSA officials say. To accomplish this objective, the redesigned site features a search engine that allows users to find information not only from federal but also from state Web pages. With the state rollout, 16 million pages were added to the search capability from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. New links also allow FirstGov.gov visitors to access information about federally recognized tribes, U.S. territories and foreign Web sites. Citizens can search all federal, all state, individual state or both federal and state government sites for specific transactions, information and services.

Based on data about the most frequently requested information, FirstGov now features a section that includes facts about items such as drivers licenses, birth certificates and passports.

The local resources link enables citizens to find government services in their own communities. By entering a zip code, the user can locate the closest post office, veterans’ hospital, Social Security office, motor vehicle office or library.

Many of the electronic transactions available from the home page can be completed with three mouse clicks. For example, citizens can purchase stamps online by clicking on the “Government Shopping” button then scrolling down to the post office and clicking on “Stamps and Postal Store.” By clicking on the “Booklet of 20” and “Buy” buttons, the user is taken to the personal shopping cart with the stamps already in it. A credit card is required to complete the purchase.

Under the business-to-government section, small business owners can market their services to government agencies or find out about subcontracting opportunities. The “Small Business Procurement Registry” hot button allows a company owner to fill out an online form that gives government contracting officials information about the firm.

Government employees can use the government-to-government section to conduct employment-related business such as calculating retirement funds or determining per diem rates for a specific area of the country. They also can apply online for any job vacancy listed on the site.

FirstGov.gov’s effectiveness is evident by the increase in usage. The site, which opened in September 2000, had an average of 725,000 hits a week at the beginning of 2001. After September 11, a major increase in usage occurred, and the number of hits climbed to a high of 1.8 million in one week. Another indication of the home page’s popularity is the number of other sites that link to it. Currently, more than 33,000 Web sites have hot buttons for FirstGov.gov.

The GSA recently awarded a contract to AT&T Government Solutions, Vienna, Virginia, for a new search engine for FirstGov.gov. The company will use the FAST Search and Transfer platform to enable FirstGov.gov to expand the number of Web sites it connects from federal, state and local governments. In addition, citizens will be able to search government databases, PDF documents and other file formats. Users’ requests for search results to be displayed by category, subject or agency may be accommodated in the near future.