Congress Snips Away at E-Gov Development Funding

The new federal fiscal year started Oct. 1 with an old problem: an unsettled annual budget. Political wrangling over the proposed budget for 2012 — estimated at nearly US$3.5 trillion by the Obama administration — meant that stopgap funding bills were required just to keep the government running.

Uncertainty over funding has become a way of life for federal agency managers. The management challenge has been compounded by congressionally mandated budget cuts.

At the Office of E-Government and Information Technology, for example, funding was cut from $34 million in 2010 to just $8 million in 2011. As lawmakers fiddled with the appropriations for 2012, it was unclear just what the budget for the E-Gov office will be in 2012 — only that it will be far less than the 2010 level. The E-Gov office is a unit within the Office of Management and Budget.

The U.S. Senate delayed issuing its recommendation for E-Gov programs until Sept. 15 in a budget proposal covering executive office activities, and in the end decided to merge the E-Gov program into an existing related program — and then cut the total funding for the combined programs by a significant amount compared with 2011.

The Senate envisioned combining the Federal Citizens Services Fund and the E-Gov Office into a single account with a 2012 budget of $39 million. In 2010, the combined budgets amounted to $71 million, and they dropped to $42 million in 2011.

A proposal for 2012 in the House was more generous, supporting the combined program at a level of $50 million. With a creative interpretation of legislative language, that could result in an E-Gov funding level close to $16 million for 2012 — far below the $34 million level in 2010. But the Senate and House approaches still need to be reconciled, and there is no guarantee that funding will exceed even the modest level for 2011.

Holding Pattern for Projects

“At these low levels, you are basically stuck in a holding pattern,” Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation, told CRM Buyer. “That’s not the intent of the E-Gov program. It was supposed be an incubator for innovative projects — but without the incubator, the innovation dies.”

The Sunlight Foundation advocates increased transparency in government, and many of the programs supported by the E-Gov office provide a greater level of public awareness of government spending and programs.

In addition, the E-Gov programs are supporting measures designed to make IT more productive in the federal government. These include the use of cloud computing and a related cloud security program called “FedRAMP,” as well as the federal data consolidation initiative, designed to reduce inefficient data center deployments by at least 50 percent.

“These e-government initiatives help the government operate more effectively and efficiently, saving taxpayer money and helping public oversight,” Schuman said. “They increase economic opportunities for small business. They also increase the public’s participation in and knowledge of government.”

At a recent House hearing on federal information technology, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., expressed concern about adequate funding for the Office of E-Government.

The E-Gov office “has been the instrument by which the federal government has fueled innovation,” responded David McClure, associate administrator at the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

At the funding levels being considered in Congress, “you will have essentially O&M work on these projects rather than new, creative ways to save money for the federal government,” McClure said.

As a result of the 2011 funding cuts, the E-Gov office terminated two of the 16 projects in its portfolio and postponed planned enhancement of other projects. Several of the 16 items, however, have been completed.

Contracting Connection Dies

Of the two terminated projects, one addressed the potential for improving IT contracting with vendors. The FedSpace program was designed to provide a platform for executive branch employees and contractors to use Web 2.0 networking and collaboration tools. The project was to take advantage of the authentication system used by OMB’s MAX system, which provides a secure electronic vehicle promoting information exchanges and dialog opportunities between contractors and federal agencies. Before the project’s termination, the FedSpace website was in beta testing and had about 500 authenticated users.

While refraining from getting into the budget debate over a specific amount of funding for the E-Gov program, Rep. Lujan came close to endorsing a level somewhat greater than current congressional budget proposals.

“I believe it is important for Congress to provide Dr. McClure and GSA with the resources necessary to ensure that the federal government can benefit from improvements in efficiency and flexibility, in addition to the innovative opportunities provided by the cloud,” Rep. Lujan told CRM Buyer.

“The federal government should be taking advantage of the cloud, but only where security concerns can be adequately addressed,” he said. “The work of GSA and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology is essential to making sure cloud computing meets those security concerns and the privacy requirements of federal agencies.”

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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