Technology

Talking Shop with Uncle Sam's CIO


Most people have never heard of Mark Forman, but he's an important man in Washington. As associate director of information technology and e-government at the federal Office of Management & Budget (OMB), Forman holds sway over $45 billion in federal IT spending -- and has the power to make IT managers at most federal agencies squirm. In a broad sense, that makes Forman, who was appointed in June, 2001, by President Bush, the first chief information officer for the federal government. Specifically, his job is to get Uncle Sam up to speed when it comes to doing all things online, from offering services to purchasing goods.

The going has been tough. Critics have questioned whether Forman can speed the wheels of the government's slow-moving machine. Today, dozens of branches spend millions to offer duplicate information online. Forman hopes to eliminate these redundancies and save hundreds of millions in taxpayers' money. His plan? Simply set up Web sites that consolidate similar data. On Oct. 23, Forman talked to BusinessWeek Online reporter Olga Kharif about the progress he has made. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: E-government is one of President Bush's top-five management priorities. What kind of support have you received from the Administration?

A: The support has been terrific. We view the President's five management items as interrelated. For example, we have a lot of financial management problems in the federal government, and some have been around for years.

Nowadays, the way you fix those is with the type of process reengineering that most people in the private sector would equate to e-business. So I work closely with the people managing the other four management agenda items, with the President's management council, and with Mark Everson, deputy director for management, who oversees all management of the federal government.

Q: What have you been able to accomplish so far, and what are you most proud of?

A: We've created a framework to manage the modernization of government. We grade the progress of each agency quarterly. A scorecard is presented to the President, and he reviews that with the Cabinet. We have some pretty standard criteria, the same that you'd see in any large company that went through an e-business transformation.

Q: What kinds of grades are you giving the agencies? What do they need to work on?

A: As a whole, we've made tremendous progress. We are the most Web-savvy government in the world. But we need to get our agencies to

work across traditional "silos" -- which, of course, after September 11 everybody recognized was a big issue. But that has been a part of our e-government strategy since the previous summer.

The reason for that is redundancy. The U.S. government was already online when I took my job 15 or 16 months ago. We had 22,000-plus Web sites, and more than 30 million documents and Web pages. Now, it's up to 180 million documents and pages. We're online, but the issue is how effective and efficient the federal government is in serving the citizens. And that's where we've made a lot of progress.

Let's look at one project, which we call e-grants. We have hundreds of grants-making organizations in the federal government, thousands of grants programs, all overlapping. You can get a three-inch-thick book on how to find grants. And you can find all of that information online. We believe that everybody should be able to get to our portal, FirstGov.com, and easily - in three clicks -- locate a grant. When I came into my job, FirstGov was a Web site I used to call "A Thousand Clicks to Service."

Q: How do you gain various agencies' cooperation? After all, they've had their own IT people and Internet-based programs - like e-grants -- for years.

A: Before President Bush created my position, no one ever had control over federal IT spending. There was a lot of discussion before I was hired about where I should sit: Should someone in this position report directly to the President? Should the person be called a CIO [chief information officer] and have his or her own department? The decision was made to put me in the OMB purely because of its tie between the management and budget decisions. The fact that we can integrate the management decisions with funding decisions is a critical enabler to help force this teamwork.

Q: Today, some critics claim that because you weren't officially named the federal government's CIO, you can't get some things done. Do you have enough authority?

A: Absolutely. If you look at what a CIO normally does in a large organization, you'd see that that's exactly what OMB Director Mitchell Daniels put down as my responsibilities.

Q: But if this e-government initiative is so important to the Administration, why do you have such a hard time getting legislative approval of your $20 million budget?

A: It was not an issue in the Senate, which gave us the budget that we asked for. The House, though, hasn't yet made that determination. I'm

still very optimistic that we'll come out with e-government money. But money isn't the issue here. We're buying the same capabilities multiple times [across government departments]. In some cases, we estimate that there are 18 to 20 projects financed by different agencies and designed to do the same thing.

Our e-government initiatives will also save money by making the government more efficient. Look at our GovBenefits.gov site. A faith-based organization or a government caseworker can now go there, check some criteria for a needy person, and figure out the different programs within a couple of minutes. To do that, absent these tools, would take weeks. So we are shrinking the time it takes to get service. We are, basically, uncomplicating the federal government.

Q: How can you implement these e-government initiatives given the budget cuts on the state level?

A: We work with the grant-management agencies that are funding a lot of the state agencies, so that the grant decision-making would accelerate for the state and local agencies that implement our projects. That worked terrifically with the Office of Justice Programs, which has been financing a lot of state programs.

Q: So far, the federal government has been somewhat cautious about embracing e-signatures. What's the holdup?

A: I'm not sure, because we've made really good progress in a couple of tools. One is signing a government document. The Secretary of Energy just released that tool, which we are going to use governmentwide. [Readers of these electronic documents can verify that they haven't been tampered with, and are indeed official, by clicking on the signature.]

The other is allowing citizens to sign online -- and that's the e-authentication project. It was just launched at the end of September. We are going to see more of that type of thing rolled out. By law, under the Government Paperwork Elimination Act and the e-sign law, the agencies have to allow that. And now we have the infrastructure. I don't know why it has taken so long, but this Administration is getting it done.

Q: By October of 2003, you have to satisfy conditions of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, designed to get the government to do transactions electronically. Are you on track?

A: I think so. We are going to address that in the budget.


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