Does the United States Need a Chief Information Officer? 

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
July 19 2000 11:30 PM

Does the United States Need a Chief Information Officer? 

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

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Al Gore and George W. Bush have both proposed expanding "e-government," which enables citizens to access government information and services via the Internet. Gore's proposal is more elaborate and reflects his longstanding interest in the Web. But only Bush's proposal endorses creating a governmentwide information czar, or chief information officer.

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The idea of the CIO is wildly popular among Netheads. Many corporations now have CIOs to make sure each division is customer-friendly for Internet users. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring individual federal agencies to designate CIOs. But some government-reform advocates think that truly effective "e-government" can't be achieved unless a super-CIO is installed in the White House to oversee all the agency CIOs. Right now, the federal government maintains something like 10,000 Web sites. Many of these operate at cross-purposes to one another. Rob Atkinson, director of the New Economy project for the Democratic Leadership Council and a vigorous proponent of the CIO idea, told me that he got an e-mail the other day from the Commerce Department's Minority Business Development Agency wanting to know why he hadn't praised its user-friendly Web site in a recent report. The reason, he explained, was that many of the same functions are duplicated on Web sites maintained by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration. Rational e-government, Atkinson believes, would be organized by function—not by federal agency.

But how to bring this about? Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, introduced a bill last month that would create a Cabinet-level CIO who would report directly to the president. Some of the impetus behind Turner's plan comes from the success enjoyed by John Koskinen in overseeing the federal government's emergency Y2K conversion. If Koskinen could keep the federal government's computers from crashing on Jan. 1, the reasoning goes, maybe someone like him could also streamline the federal government's delivery of e-government services. The trouble, argues Sally Katzen, acting deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, is that the Y2K problem was a relatively straightforward technical problem, as opposed to the varied, often policy-laden issues that a CIO would have to tackle. "We think it's basically a distraction," Katzen says of the CIO idea. Better to leave each agency the flexibility necessary to tackle its unique and complex info-tech problems on its own, she says.

The OMB's resistance to the CIO idea is really "self-interested," Atkinson argues, because creating a CIO would usurp the OMB's power. He's surely right about that. As things stand now, the OMB gets to review new agency regulations and to initiate governmentwide management reforms regarding such matters as procurement. Although the "management" side of the OMB isn't nearly as powerful as the "budget" side, the fact that the OMB's management bureaucrats operate in proximity to—and sometimes in league with—its budget bureaucrats gives them more clout than, say, the "reinventing government" troops working on Al Gore's National Performance Review task force. Install a CIO in the White House and whatever ability the OMB enjoys to call the shots on federal management reform will vanish.

On the other hand, it does seem a bit silly to create a new management-oversight agency within the White House when it has a relatively effective one in place already. (Koskinen, the Y2K savior, was recruited from the OMB—he was Katzen's predecessor.) A Senate e-government bill now being drafted by Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., is expected to propose a governmentwide CIO. But Lieberman and Thompson will likely have their CIO report to the OMB. Bush does not specify whom his CIO would report to.

Is a governmentwide CIO ultimately a good idea? Yes, probably. Atkinson is certainly right that there's currently little coordinated effort at the federal level to deliver services in a way that ordinary citizens find easy to use. By contrast, state governments are moving quickly to make it easy to pay parking tickets or get drivers' licenses on the Web through nationwide services like ezgov.com and govWorks.com.

A national CIO would certainly improve federal services. Still, Washington needs a CIO less urgently than advocates insist, because "customer demands" on the federal government aren't nearly as great as those on states. Most people under the age of 65 don't require much routine service from the feds. Poor folks interact with the welfare state mainly via state offices that distribute federal benefits. Even the post office is now semi-private and therefore largely beyond the reach of White House control. Though I live in Washington, it's a struggle for me to remember the last time I had occasion to receive personal service from a federal employee. (Perhaps when I renewed my passport 10 years ago.) As for those who do conduct business with the federal government on a regular basis—say, federal contractors—exactly how "frictionless" do we really want those transactions to be? Are these vendors the federal government's "customers"? Or are the customers the citizens on whose behalf the government purchases are made? The answer to that question, and many others, lies well beyond the realm of info-tech. 

Correction, July 20: Although Sens. Lieberman and Thompson are jointly sponsoring a Web site to gather ideas for an e-commerce bill, Thompson has not yet agreed to co-sponsor the bill, which Lieberman has begun drafting.

Clarification, July 20: Readers may be wondering why this story provides no link to George W. Bush's CIO proposal. The reason is simple: It's disappeared! The Bush campaign redesigned its Web site the night before this article was posted, and in the process somehow managed to misplace the June 9 press release in which Bush endorsed the CIO idea. They're working on finding it now. Meanwhile, here's the crucial passage, which falls under the heading, "Bush will:":

Accelerate e-government by appointing a government-wide Chief Information Officer, and creating a $100 million fund to support interagency e-government initiatives, especially ones enabling individuals to drill directly into the bureaucracy.

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