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GAO chides agencies on e-government

By
SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News

WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) -- The White House's Office of Management and Budget must coordinate efforts among federal agencies to create a unified information technology architecture, witnesses at a House hearing said Thursday.

The House Government Reform Technology and Procurement Policy held the hearing to discuss ways to speed up the federal "e-government" effort, which uses the Internet to improve services to citizens and reduce operational costs.

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Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va., said the plan seeks to replace the individual, vertical uses of information within agencies.

"If these objectives are pursued without determining in advance the underlying architecture, we may be undermining our goal of better utilizing technology across the traditional boundaries of bureaucracy," Davis said.

Davis and Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, have introduced legislation to formalize the push to e-government. Turner said a similar bill passed its first hurdles in the Senate Thursday.

"There is the widely held view that we have not moved as rapidly in the (Internet Age) transformation as the private sector," Turner said. "It is important that we do so, not only to save millions of taxpayer dollars, but to make government more accessible and user-friendly."

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Implementing an "enterprise architecture" also can help homeland security, Turner said, through its focus on sharing resources and information.

The EA concept is key for agencies' success in the e-government movement, said Randy Hite, director of information technology systems issues for the General Accounting Office. An enterprise architecture is the blueprint for organizations to meld disparate and sometimes duplicative computer systems into a cohesive network.

Federal agencies have problems, however, enacting such blueprints, Hite said. A GAO report finds 84 percent of Cabinet departments, their component offices and independent agencies are only at the first or second step in a five-part process for implementing EA principles. Being at the first step can mean the organization still is dealing with the issue on an ad-hoc basis, he said.

"(EA) practices can be viewed as the horse that pulls the cart containing e-government initiatives," Hite told the committee. "Historically, however, agencies have too often put the cart before the horse, forging ahead on IT investments before putting management practices in place."

There are some successes, the report said, and the rest of the executive branch should pay attention to how they were achieved. For example, the Customs Service completed an EA, as well as management controls for maintaining it and enforcing compliance, in about a year, the report said. The IRS's "e-file" effort is an example of the fourth step in the EA maturation process.

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The OMB, meanwhile, is not using independent standards to map out steps agencies need to advance down the EA path, the GAO report said. "Unless it enhances its oversight approach to address these areas, OMB will be challenged in advancing the state of government-wide architecture maturity," the report said.

The office hasn't been sitting idle on the issue, said Mark Forman, OMB's associate director for IT and e-government. It recognizes agencies face exactly the sorts of obstacles an EA is supposed to deal with: a lack of focus on results, islands of automation, inability to leverage technology and resistance to change, he testified.

The office's approach looked for areas of IT investment common to several agencies. OMB is working to get the offices to pool their 2003 budget resources on the 24 initiatives identified, he said.

"We don't want to keep reinventing the wheel," Forman told the committee.

Davis lauded the White House and OMB for taking on the challenge, but wondered how the effort would fare once administrations change. Forman said a 1996 law, the Clinger-Cohen Act, gives the office the authority to require federal chief information officers to act on EA issues regardless of who's in the Oval Office.

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The agencies themselves also are on board the EA bandwagon, said Lee Holcomb, chief information officer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and co-chair of the federal CIO Council's Architecture Committee. The council published an EA guide last year, he said, and the agencies are pooling expertise on information-sharing technologies through a Web site.

"I commend OMB's efforts to assess the status of deployment and maturity of enterprise architectures," Holcomb said in prepared testimony. "The CIO Council and OMB should continue to provide guidance and assistance in overcoming the barriers to (effective e-government)."

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