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Paving the Way For E-Government

April 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Oversight body makes federal procurement toe the line.

The U.S. government’s information technology efforts are being coordinated by a new office responsible for holding agency programs accountable to budget limits and sound business plans. Part of an ongoing drive to streamline government and provide better services to the public, the department promotes the development of innovative ideas and methods to achieve these goals.

Some benchmarks established in electronic government initiatives are reducing waste and redundancy in technology procurements and expediting communication between federal organizations. The Bush administration has launched a series of initiatives and legislation designed to place a solid business cost-benefit model on new information technology programs. In December, the president signed the Electronic Government Act of 2002, intended to make federal information systems communicate more easily with each other. The act also established a department within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to oversee and coordinate government information technology resources.

The Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology, Washington, D.C., was formerly the OMB’s Office of Information Technology and Electronic Government, explains Mark A. Forman, the new office’s administrator. He was associate director of the old department before this February’s changeover. The new organization retains its former responsibilities, but its jurisdiction and priorities are more clearly defined.

The office’s primary task is to coordinate government information technology resources. Forman adds that he works closely with the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). One of the gray zones addressed by the E-Government Act is the statutory role shared by OIRA and Forman’s department under the Paperwork Reduction Act. The legislation clearly defines each organization’s responsibilities.

Among its priorities, the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology ensures that the government makes the most of digital technology and best practices to improve service quality, effectiveness and efficiency. It also leads efforts to develop and implement advanced policies and systems throughout the federal sphere.

As administrator, Forman’s duties include managing the e-government fund, which was established to generate interagency technical and service innovation, and directing the Chief Information Officer (CIO) Council. Made up of federal agency information officers, the council offers suggestions on agency CIO appointments as well as monitors and consults on technology efforts. Although the terminology is not used officially, Forman explains that many of his duties are identical to those of a CIO in a Fortune 50 company.

He notes that most of his office’s responsibilities were put in place when he was appointed to run its predecessor in 2001. Since its establishment in 2001, it has achieved a number of results. Under the e-government initiative, 23 areas were identified where consolidations and improvements can be made in federal technology programs (SIGNAL, July 2002, page 21). Forman describes these as the low-hanging fruit—problems that can be solved with minimal time and effort.

Another accomplishment was the creation of a system to manage federal information technology investments across civilian and U.S. Defense Department agencies. This does not represent national security systems, but all of the administrative and mission applications, he says. Within this framework, the office uses business cases to determine the success of an agency’s technology programs. An organization must clearly articulate how the investment will improve its mission or program performance before funding is permitted.

This discipline is important because the OMB has identified a number of deficiencies in the way government technology programs are undertaken. The 2004 budget highlights several chronic problems encountered by federal agency efforts that must be addressed. These include what Forman describes as “paving cow paths”—automating management problems instead of leveraging e-business solutions to solve them. Redundancies caused by multiple agencies buying the same item instead of using economies of scale or creating one-stop points of service must be addressed as well as bad program management leading to late and over budget projects.

Other problems include poor modernization blueprints—few agencies create a business-driven architecture or road map to demonstrate how their information technology investments will improve performance—and poor cybersecurity caused by viewing information security as a funding problem instead of an agency management issue.

The final difficulty concerns “islands of automation.” This refers to the federal government’s patchwork of technologies and Web sites. Citizens must deal with multiple agencies and 22,000 Web sites for services instead of a single point-of-service home page or call center. Another problem caused by this profusion of sites and systems is that agencies cannot easily collaborate for key missions such as homeland security, he says.

Forman observes that applying business cases to a program is a good practice because it reveals how much aid an organization receives and if a project depends on information technology or if the apparent dependence is just masking a management problem. “In our eyes, that’s a failed approach [covering management]. Or is it [the organization] seeking to fix underlying management issues and then applying the IT so they can take advantage of e-business?” he asks.

Use of cost-benefit risk assessment to weigh alternatives to existing plans is another criterion applied to evaluate agencies’ compliance with congressional mandates. Under the Clinger-Cohen Act, organizations must examine alternatives such as business outsourcing or determine whether incremental improvements or a full re-engineering of the technology system are necessary. “These are the types of alternatives we want them to look at. Then they’ve got to have a decent project management plan. They have to have a qualified project manager, and we’ll know if they have one because the data we get out of their business case says whether or not they’ve got milestones and costs associated with achieving each milestone,” Forman maintains.

This type of cost measurement is an important part of an earned value management regime. Although it has been used in defense weapon systems development programs for 20 years, earned value management was not widely applied to government technology projects. He notes that this is one of the chronic problems the office is addressing through its business case approach.

Out of some 1,400 government information technology projects reviewed in 2002, only 25 percent achieved the office’s goals, whereas the majority were deficient in two or more areas. But this represents a victory of sorts, Forman explains. Prior to these efforts, no data was available to measure the success of government technology programs. To gain a better understanding of cost issues, the office studied project budget overruns. Under the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, if a project exceeds its cost schedule by 10 percent, it must be reviewed for possible termination. In programs with established baselines, the average often did not exceed the 10 percent mark. But those few in excess often were far over the limit. “Every cost overrun in excess of 10 percent was on last year’s at-risk list. We’ve learned our lesson, and we know you have to make sure the basics of good project management get done before the money goes to initiate a project. Otherwise, we’ll have cost overruns and schedule slips. It may have been the greatest vision in the world, but it’s not achievable unless the agency does the line work to see if it has really identified the right solution,” he says.

The government’s history of failed programs served as an impetus to put the business cases into place, Forman admits. They have been in operation for more than a year, and agencies are beginning to use them to improve the quality of their programs. A side effect of the tighter criteria and added discipline is that the office has received more funding requests. Forman believes this is his office’s biggest success to date—getting agencies to focus on results, which allows them to make better judgments and more informed requests for funding.

Another requirement of the Clinger-Cohen Act is for agencies to put together a disciplined approach to enterprise architecture before requesting funding. This fiscal year, the office was able to examine the spending requests in the business cases relative to each of the federal government’s 140 lines of business. From this, 35 areas with 10 or more redundant information technology investment requests were identified. 

Management score cards are another of the office’s achievements. The grading system has been in place for five quarters. Each quarter, every Cabinet-level federal agency is graded against the management agenda items on the score card. Agencies receiving a failing score are downgraded for that quarter. Every quarter the scores are presented to the president and the Cabinet. If an agency is not performing, the president knows and asks why, Forman says. A data sheet also is presented with each score card to explain what is happening and what, according to the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology, needs to be done. The deputy secretaries see this data before a Cabinet meeting and prepare the secretaries so they can explain what they are doing to solve the problem. In some cases, he notes, downgrades in progress have led to personnel changes.

Although much has been done, there is room for improvement. Forman believes that providing additional security for systems continues to be the office’s biggest challenge. The substantial infrastructure requires protection, but agencies also want to spend money on new projects. “I think we’ve turned that corner, but it was difficult to get them [the agencies] to focus on securing what they’ve got before investing in the new. We have made that a policy proclamation in this year’s budget process,” he says.

Another challenge is offering work force skills for project managers and architects. Because many government programs consist of technology efforts, re-engineering and organization change in equal parts, a federal representative must oversee such activities. “You can’t have a contractor come in and drive organization change working with a line of business people. You need somebody overseeing the whole thing,” Forman says.

Additional information on the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology is available on the World Wide Web at www.whitehouse.gov/omb.

 

Federal Information Technology Budget to Grow in 2004

The Bush administration’s 2004 information technology budget request to Congress will increase over the previous year, with much of the added funds directed toward homeland security. According to Mark A. Forman, administrator of the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology, the request is for $59 billion, up from $52.6 billion in 2003.

Forman notes that a large part of the increase—some $1.6 billion—is a reflection of better reporting of existing information technology programs. But the government has significantly increased strategic technology investments to support homeland security and the war on terrorism.

Federal agencies also have made a variety of smaller budget increases to modernize their operations. Much of this growth will happen in fiscal year 2003, with additional strategic increases from the 2003 to the 2004 request largely concentrated on homeland security.

The 2004 budget request includes $37 billion for technology that supports agency programs and missions, $21 billion for related office networks and infrastructure, and $1 billion to enhance government bureaus’ enterprise architectures. Forman notes that the proposed budget also earmarks $4.7 billion for cybersecurity, a 10 percent increase from 2003.

More than 700 major projects—representing roughly $21 billion of the $59 billion 2004 budget—are currently on an “at risk” list. These include mission-critical programs not demonstrating sufficient potential for success through a business case, or they are efforts that have not yet adequately addressed information security. Forman adds that government bureaus continue to work on these issues to remove their projects from the list.

E-government is a central part of the president’s efforts to reform the management of government. Key elements of the administration’s agenda include driving results and productivity growth—especially in homeland security—and emphasizing information sharing and knowledge flow.

Another important facet is controlling information technology costs through consolidation and integration of redundant applications, buying enterprisewide licenses for software and correcting budget overruns. Forman adds that developing a governmentwide enterprise architecture that includes Web-based strategies for improving access to high-quality information and services is an important part of the administration’s drive.