The Business of Government Hour

 

About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Kimberly Nelson interview

Friday, October 22nd, 2004 - 20:00
Phrase: 
"The EPA is collecting the information we need to understand the condition of the environment. It’s important to have the right information to make sure tax dollars are being spent wisely and for management purposes."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 10/23/2004
Guest: 
Intro text: 
Technology and E-Government; Green...

Technology and E-Government; Green

Magazine profile: 
Complete transcript: 

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Arlington, Virginia

Mr. Lawrence: Good Morning and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence partner in charge of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. We created this center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more by visiting us on the web at www.businessofgovernment.org.

The Business of Government Radio Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who's changing the way government does business. Our special guest this morning is Kim Nelson. Kim is the Assistant Administrator and Chief Information Officer at the Environmental Protection Agency. Good morning Kim.

Ms. Nelson: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: And joining us in our conversation also from IBM, is Dave Abel.

Mr. Lawrence: Good morning Dave.

Mr. Abel: Good morning Paul.

Mr. Lawrence: Okay, let's start by talking a little bit about the EPA. Could you give us a historical background of the EPA and explain its mission to our listeners?

Ms. Nelson: The Environmental Protection Agency I think is an organization that most Americans recognize. It was created back in 1970, right around the time of the first Earth Day, and it was created as America was really getting an interest and awareness of the environment. Everybody wants clean air, wants safe drinking water, wants land that's clean to live on and living communities that are safe for our children to grow up in. And therefore EPA was created to help provide that kind of mission for the country.

Mr. Lawrence: Could you talk to us a little bit about the EPA's interaction and relationships with other Federal departments and agencies.

Ms. Nelson: Sure, you know, when people think of the environment often EPA is the first agency that comes to mind but really there are many Federal agencies that have some kind of responsibility for protecting the environment. For instance, the Department of Interior manages over 500 million acres within the country. In fact one-fifth of all the land in the United States is managed by the Department of Interior through their park service and through national lands. Likewise the Department of Agriculture manages all the forest land within the country that is owned by the government. And you have a handful of other agencies that also some kind of environmental responsibility. So in doing our mission we have to work with many other Federal agencies.

Mr. Lawrence: How do you describe the size of EPA's budget and its number of people?

Ms. Nelson: EPA is a fairly large agency, even though we are an agency and not a department. We have almost 20,000 employees across the country. We have a headquarters that's rather large here in Washington but we also have 10 regional offices across the country and I really think that's where the rubber hits the road in terms of EPA working with states, working with local governments, and working with tribes to fulfill our mission.

Mr. Lawrence: And how about the skills of the people, as you were describing the environment, I began to think about the scientists and the like, maybe you can describe the capabilities of the team?

Ms. Nelson: Well, we certainly do have a lot of scientists and more and more I think one of EPA's core missions is in the research area. There are lot of questions that are still unanswered to us today. Even 30 years -- more than 30 years after the agency was created, there are so many answers that we still don't have today. Particularly answers like linkages between environmental conditions and health conditions so certainly the science is an important part of EPA's mission.

In addition we have a lot of engineers. We have enforcement officers, lawyers. We have people who analyze programs trying to ensure that we're achieving the results we want to achieve. So we have a broad array of different kinds of people working at EPA with different backgrounds and skills. In my own office, I'm in the Office of Environmental Information of course.We have tremendous focus on technology and therefore the -- the skillset that we have in my office has more of a focus on technology, information science, information management, librarians, people who know how to access information, display information, disseminate it; people who use geospatial tools, a lot of people with geography backgrounds because that's an important part of how we share and display information.

Mr. Lawrence: Let's talk a little bit further about the responsibilities of your organization. What are your responsibilities and duties as the Chief Information Officer?

Ms. Nelson: Well, that title Chief Information Officer is one that is probably widely known to a lot of people who work in the private sector. For government, the term is relatively new. I will say particularly coming from State government. And here in the Federal government back in 1996, the Clinger-Cohen Act was passed and under that act certain large agencies were required to create a Chief Information Officer position. That position as envisioned by the law was to be created in such a way that many companies, large companies in the private sector created CIO positions. The position for instance is to report to the head of the agency. There was a real acknowledgment at that point in time that the use of the information was a powerful tool to the Federal government.

The Federal government was making a tremendous investment of billions of dollars in information management, information technology tools and therefore they felt that the CIO who has authority generally across an organization to make investment decisions and technology decisions was a wise position to have in the Federal government.

Mr. Lawrence: You mentioned background in the State government. Can you tell us about your previous experiences before becoming CIO?

Ms. Nelson: I have been in Washington now for three years, before that I worked for 22 years in the State government. I held a variety of positions. Interestingly enough I spent 22 years as an at-will employee or as a political employee, never having a civil service position. I believe that sort of gave me the desire everyday to get up and do an outstanding job because I didn't have civil service protection. I started in the Senate of Pennsylvania as a Legislative Aid. It was a tremendous way to get experience of the State government at large, everything that happens in the State government. I left there and I went to a regulatory agency, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and I worked for the Chairman of the Public Utility Commission.

There I think I really got interested in regulatory issues. I was there at a phenomenal time. I was there during the accident at Three Mile Island. I happened to live just outside of Harrisburg, when that accident occurred and much of the work we did then was dealing with the aftermath. The clean up there, the cost associated with it. I was there during the break up of the 18 bell companies. Again it was an interesting time in the regulatory arena. I left there and spent a short amount of time working in Governor's Office Administration, the Department of Ageing and really recognized that I want to get back into a regulatory environment and went to work for the Department of Environmental Resources. I spent 14 years working there before I came to EPA. And it was there at the department of environmental resources where I was tapped to be the first CIO ever for that particular agency.

Mr. Lawrence: So how -- how did these experiences together help you to be able to prepare for the responsibility that you now have in the EPA?

Ms. Nelson: I come to this CIO position perhaps a little bit differently than a lot of people. I don't have an IT background. I don't have a degree in information technology, computer science information management. My bachelor's degree is in secondary education and political science. My master degree is in public administration. I cannot be jobbed really from a management perspective saying what does a manager need to do for their job by way of information and it was very apparent back then in our environmental agency. We didn't have the kind of information we needed to know, whether we're doing good or not. We couldn't compare one program to the other in terms of were our facilities in compliance with our laws.

We didn't have information to really tell us whether the air was getting better, the water was getting cleaner. So we didn't have the kind of management information we needed to always make the best management decisions in terms of where our resources should go or how our budget should be allocated. And that's what drove me into this field, which was to say how do we as an organization then start to collect the right information to use for management purposes.

Mr. Lawrence: You mentioned the management information, I want to take you back to compare some of your State experience with your Federal experience. Give us a sense of you know, how would you compare the different management approaches at the two levels of government?

Ms. Nelson: Well, it's funny you should ask that question Paul, I was testifying before the Congressman's Putnam's Committee and at the tail end of the hearing he asked that exact question, how would I compare my State experience with my Federal experience. There're many, many similarities: the mission of our organizations are similar, the demands that we have from the public are similar, the challenges we face are similar. The one thing that is very different here in the Federal government is the focus on information technology and information management from so many areas.

The Federal -- the State government, excuse me, it almost happened unnoticed but here in the Federal government there's a tremendous amount of interest from Congress. You know, I've testified a half a dozen times already before congressional committees. I never did that in the State government. There wasn't that kind of interest from the general assembly. The General Accounting Office, the number of audits that my office goes through from the General Accounting Office again is another indication of the inspector general, the OMB all of that oversight is very, very different here in the Federal government than what I ever experienced in at least my own State government career.

Mr. Lawrence: And how about the speed of decision making, how would you compare the two levels?

Ms. Nelson: The speed of decision making, I think, depends on the nature of the decision that has to be made. There are clearly some instances where I could point to my own State career where I was able to make a decision on the spot and have that implemented, but here in the Federal government so many of those decisions are in fact covered by regulatory requirements that a decision that was very simple in State government that I made on my own and had implemented within 24 hours, actually here in the Federal government would take a rule making, or would take years to implement.

Then again there are many other decisions where we can make them just as quickly here and that's not the case so it really depends on the nature of the decision although in general there is more bureaucracy here and more red tape and it is more difficult to get things done.

Mr. Lawrence: It's an interesting point especially about the speed and the different issues. Information collection and dissemination is a big part of what the EPA does, what are the management challenges in doing this? We'll ask Kim Nelson of the EPA for her perspective when The Business of Government Hour continues.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour, I'm Paul Lawrence and this morning's conversation is with Kim Nelson. Kim is the Assistant Administrator and Chief Information Officer at the Environmental Protection Agency. Joining us in the conversation is Dave Abel.

Mr. Abel: Kim, the Office of Environmental Information or OEI has numerous responsibilities including the collection and dissemination of environmental information with external stakeholders. What kind of data does your office collect and how do you use it?

Ms. Nelson: Dave, let me just do a minute on what the Office of Environmental Information is about because I think that's important. Next month, October we will be celebrating our 5th anniversary as an office and it was created solely for the purpose of recognizing that EPA did not have the information it often needed to manage its programs. So if you look at the Office of Information, of Environmental Information, we have a broad spectrum of responsibilities. And they almost follow the lifecycle of data, how you collect it, how you store it, how you disseminated it. One of those key responsibilities is information collection and what's really fascinating is EPA is a little different from most Federal agencies and that so much of the Federal law is delegated to States and tribes.

For instance if you take our major air, water and waste management programs, those programs are all delegated for the most part to our states. That means 95% of the information in EPA's computer systems comes from the states. So for us a large challenge is how do we collect that information from our state partners, our tribal partners in a way that's a standardized format that allows us to then aggregate the information in a way that's valid so we can get the national picture. So a core part of what we collect is from our state partners. We also though have some direct regulatory responsibilities with facilities.

For instance in my office of Environmental Information, we have something called the Toxic Release Inventory program that requires facilities once a year to submit a report directly to EPA that tells us how much material they have released to the environment either the water, the air, the land that's of a toxic nature. Those reports come directly to us for tens of thousands of facilities across the country. So there's information collection requirements span, municipal government, tribal government, State governments, and facilities.

Mr. Lawrence: It seems to me with the delegation of responsibility for the collection of so much data the quality assurance has to be a big concern for your -- for your organization. What type of quality assurance programs are in place or under way to make sure that the data that's collected is both accurate and reliable?

Ms. Nelson: It's a huge issue for us in fact, last year for the first time EPA put on the street, last June what we call a draft report of the environment. It's hard to believe with the agency having been in existence of over 30 years, last year was the first time we ever put a report out to the public that told us what we knew and didn't know about the condition of the environment. And in some respects we couldn't answer those questions because the quality of the data wasn't high enough to provide answers that we thought were scientifically valid. So data quality is a huge issue for us.

One of things we've done is, we work very closely with States and tribes on data standards, because one of the things that's important is when we aggregate the data we're not mixing apples and oranges--that we all have the same definitions and standards. So about 5 years ago we started a data standards counsel with State, tribes in EPA and that's been very successful. We've worked through some really tough issues like how do we identify facility, what we call chemicals, what are our biological standards, permitting of standards, enforcement of standards, what do you call an inspection, and what do you call an enforcement action. They are important decisions because when we aggregate that information across 50 states we have to have the right picture. That's an important step we've taken.

We also have, I think a very good quality management program with EPA. All of our programs have to have quality management plans for all their information systems. And this year for the very first time we actually have every program in EPA with an approved quality management plan in place and I think that's -- that too is a big step. The last thing I'll just say we're doing is we know data collection is important to EPA. We know we collect data from a lot of different sources and one of the most important things we can do to improve the quality is make sure it's right before it ever gets to us. So we're putting in place a lot of validation techniques.

For instance we have our central data exchange. That's our portal, the single point through which all data will be received by EPA in the future and built into CDX are the tools and the technology to help ensure the highest level of data quality as those reports or submissions are being received. And we have seen for instance just this past year, our toxic release inventory reports. We know that when people submit those electronically over the internet through a central data exchange, we see a 25% higher rate of quality in terms of errors coming in the door than we see on paper reports, so we know it works.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, better data in clearly means better information out. Once you've collected the data what types of products are produced? Can you give us a couple of examples of how EPA actually uses the information once it's been collected?

Ms. Nelson: Boy, the examples are limitless. I'll go back to the one that I just mentioned because it's one of which I'm so proud and it's last year's EPA's draft report on the environment, again it's hard for me to believe, an agency of our size, an agency that has budget of almost a billion a year has never been able to tell the American public what we know about the environment and what we don't know. That was really an initiative of Governor Christine Whitman's when she came on board. She pledged that before she left she would give the American public what she liked to call the report card about the state of the environment and we were able to do that.

We are now working on our second report card and that's really fashioned in a way that's easy for the American Public to understand, based on some common questions, like is my water safe to drink, are the fish safe to eat, what's the condition of indoor air and what contributes to bad indoor air. The kinds of things that effect, you know, you every day or as a parent you are concerned about. That's one important tool we use. Another is getting information out to the public on our website. My office is responsible for managing our website and I think EPA has one of the most impressive set of tools to share with the American public about what we know about the environment today.

One of them is windowed in my environment--a very simple tool on our website. Go in and put your zip code in and we will tell you based on your zip code everything we know about that part of your community. What facilities are there that we regulate, what we know about their discharges what we know about their permits and violations, it's all right there in one place.

Mr. Lawrence: In addition to the public who are some of the other stakeholders that use the information and how do you make information available to them?

Ms. Nelson: Well one of -- certainly in an audience that we're concerned about, we work with closely are other decision makers throughout the United States. Certainly EPA with its 18,000 employees we recognize we're not the only environmental professionals out there and without environmental decision makers at the local level and local governments, at county levels, in state governments, in tribes. So one of the things we try to do is make sure that as decision makers across the country, we all have access to the very best information, because we're spending, you know, cumulatively between states and EPA we're spending over $20 billion in tax payer money. It's important to have the right information to make sure these dollars are being spent wisely.

Mr. Lawrence: You mentioned the Environmental Information Exchange Network. Could you tell us more about this, the history of how it came into being and how it works?

Ms. Nelson: Well as I talked about it earlier, EPA is an agency where our responsibilities are so highly devolved down to the state that it became apparent if we were going to do our job as co-regulators we really had to be in a partnership in sharing information and we -- the world at the time was such that states were spending more and more money on their own information systems. They weren't relying on EPA's information systems, which were becoming more outdated. States were building their own information systems and actually building integrated information systems. So it was important we partner with them to share the information. I think that the network is based on a very -- you know some very simple concepts.

And one is the e-commerce concept. We recognized that the world was changing and technology was bringing to us the ability to use the Internet and standard e-commerce tools to our advantage. Things like data standards, trading partner agreements for companies that were sharing information--they were being used for the same reason we needed to be able to use those. So, the technology was evolving and we could rely on the Internet.

The second core concept was, as I mentioned earlier since 95 percent of our information comes from the states, it's important that the states be the stewards of their own data. If you have to maintain two different information systems, one for EPA and one for yourself, which one's going to have the highest quality data? The one you're using, not the one you're feeding to EPA. So it was important we eliminate this duplicate system and ensure that the states were in fact the stewards of their own data and that they collected the data and kept the data and that they kept it up to date and accurate and only provided access to EPA of the data we needed. So this is about states, EPA, stewarding their data, making sure what we collect is of very high quality and then sharing it. So what our network does is encourage everyone to put a node on the network using common standards and technology and on that node you would place data that you want to share with other people.

They maybe openly available or it may only be available through a trading partner agreement. But that data then is data that you own, you decide to share, you decide with whom you're going to share it and what the conditions are in terms of sharing that data through a trading partner agreement. And we're seeing as a result of that higher quality data, more accurate data, more timely data being available for decision makers.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a very interesting point, especially about the reduction and the redundancy. Technologies used to drive EPA's operations. How is the EPA addressing issues such as interoperability and enterprise architecture, we'll ask Kim Nelson of the EPA to take us through this when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour, I'm Paul Lawrence. This mornings conversation is with Kim Nelson, Kim's the Assistant Administrator and Chief Information Officer of the Environmental Protection Agency. Joining in our conversation is Dave Abel.

Mr. Abel: Kim, we spent the last segment talking about the information that you collect from external stakeholders and the reporting and analyses you do against that information. But you're also responsible for the technology that derives the operation within EPA. Can you give us an idea of what that entails and what your office is doing to promote efficiency and interoperability within the organization?

Ms. Nelson: The OEI has many of the traditional responsibilities and as the CIO, you would expect to find in terms of managing operations within an organization. For instance we're responsible for providing secure access to our network and that includes thousands of applications and all of our databases. Some are very sophisticated scientific computing and now with good computing and communications, so that's pretty standard but we're really evolving into a lot of the new or super computing and good computing areas that are -- I find very exciting particularly in partnership with our researchers in the organization.

One thing that is I guess we're very fortunate in EPA and as I talk to my colleagues I recognize more and more we're fortunate, EPA has the entire organization on an agency wide e-mail and Lotus Notes system. I'm shocked when I talked to my colleagues in other federal agencies and realize they're still using multiple e-mail systems but we are using this efficiencies and we're talking earlier about how we're using SameTime and those Lotus Notes and collaborative tools to help us manage the organization and work more effectively. I find that very exciting as people are discovering the potential there. Security is a major issue for us as it is in all organizations. We've come a long way in security in this organization.

Four years ago EPA actually had to shut down its Internet access because there were so many potential security breaches acknowledged in the GAO report. We've reached a point now where last year in the President's budget EPA was cited as "the model" for having the best security program within the Federal government. So we still have many challenges ahead of us, there are still a lot of work in terms of what we have to do in management operations, there are some of the things we do on the internal side, on the external side I was talking earlier about for instance, central data exchange. Managing that project and running that operation for users on the outside is very important to our relationship with our partners.

Mr. Lawrence: One of the topics that we normally interact with -- we talk to CIO's on these shows and elsewhere as enterprise architecture. I know it's a very complex subject. Could you describe the value of the enterprise architecture at the EPA?

Ms. Nelson: You know, enterprise architecture is an interesting term and I have learned in 3 years in the Federal Government that we all may be better off if we stop using the term enterprise architecture because after so many years there are still so many people who find it very difficult to understand. And I'm not sure why because to me, all enterprise architecture is, is a very basic blue print or a picture. It's being able to describe graphically the business of the organization so that you understand the business of the organization and you can make the best resource decisions for your organizations in terms of where you put your people, where you put your technology, where you put your money in terms of providing tools for your organizations and solutions.

So it's been an interesting journey over the last few years. So I've learned to stay away from the term and my goal over the next year is actually to -- not use those words "enterprise architecture" but to focus solely on business results. What are the solutions we need to put in place to ensure the business results of the organization and that's understanding our strategic goals and making sure that we're investing our dollars to achieve this strategic goals.

Mr. Lawrence: Well with the blue print and understanding the business results, have there been any new technology initiatives that have happened as a result of sort of putting those two together?

Ms. Nelson: Oh clearly, I think as we look for instance to build our portal one of the things we're trying to do is look at our shared -- what I'd like to call shared services. What are the things we want to build one time in EPA, share with the rest of the organization, in other words build once use many and our portal will do that. What we envision through our portal is to have that single place where people outside the agency can come who are co-regulators, people inside the agency to access the information they need. So we're building the core share services that are identity management, security, and our backend registries that will house the information that people most often want to get out of our databases. It is the tools to manipulate that data, to actually extract that data, manipulate and display it.

So for instance, that then becomes an implementation of our enterprise architecture because we're building a solution one time and we're providing that for many people in the organization. It meets the strategic goals of the organization it reduces duplication, and it helps get information in the hands of people as quickly as possible and very high quality information.

Mr. Abel: So we've talked quite a bit about what can be competing priorities. There are the priorities of the external stakeholders, information sharing consortium and there's priorities of the internal stakeholders managing the business of the agency. How do you balance the requirements between those two groups of stakeholders?

Ms. Nelson: Well if you do it right and you establish your priorities you can often find that a solution that you're putting in place to meet your external customers often meets your internal customers. For instance, recently and I've talked a lot about central data exchange, but it's really interesting when you develop a solution and you develop a solution that's built in such a way that it is sharable and usable and scalable. With our central data exchange we recently put that in place, while we built that originally as you know for communication with our state partners and our tribal partners.

We recently put that in place as a backend service for one of the Presidency Gov initiatives. We a partner with the grants.gov, e-Gov initiative which is the way the federal government wants to centralize all the grant information for the Federal government. So if you want to find and apply for a grant you go to grants.gov one place. We were actually able to use the web services tools of CDX to assist on the backend on an internal way, grants.gov. So it's wonderful when you find solutions like that that you can reuse and the more we develop solutions like that the more we'll be able to do that.

Mr. Abel: Well, let's talk about one initiative in particular. Can you tell us a bit about the environmental indicators initiative just a little bit about what it is and how it helps the EPA to manage the results?

Ms. Nelson: Well, as you know, Dave, over the years there have been many initiatives that required the government to focus on results. The government performance results act, what we have to do for our budgeting purposes, the most recent part tools that OMB is using to assess programs in terms of their effectiveness. But what we found is even some of those statutory requirements were lacking, at least within EPA. Because much of what we have to do has a long term horizon to it in terms of really understanding the condition of the environment and we tended to focus more on, as many people do, the widgets or the outcomes.

You know, how many permits were issued, how many enforcement actions were taken, those kinds of things versus what's the quality of the water across the country. And what we're trying to do with our environmental indicators initiative is to really focus for the American Public on answering those questions. Our very first step was the draft the report on the environment, I mentioned earlier. That was a first milestone and a very long-term effort.

One of the most important things we're doing right now is when we issued that report we were not able to answer almost three quarters of the questions in a very solid way. Some questions we couldn't answer at all, other questions we answered with what we recall like a level two indicator, with some information but it wasn't the very best. We are now looking at all of those gaps and to have a process in place for determining what are the highest priority gaps, how do we fill those gaps, what it will cost to fill those gaps, and what's the signs that we have to understand in terms of filling those gaps.

So, think of this as a very long-term initiative within the agency to truly begin to collect the information we need to understand the condition of the environment. And I'll just say as a final note, some people might say, you know I can't understand, you know you've been around on these 35 years, why weren't you collecting some of this information. Much of it is because of the change in focus, many of the laws that were in place directed certain activities to take place, like issue permits and performance inspections and they were the things we had to report to Congress on. But you know, even if every facility has a permit out there, it doesn't mean the environment is getting better.

Even if every facility has been inspected it doesn't mean that the air is getting cleaner. So, we need to begin to collect the information so that we ultimately understand the outcome and we didn't do that before because the laws didn't require that. Now, maybe that's not a good reason, but we focused on what the laws required and now it's important to focus on the bigger picture.

Mr. Lawrence: It's a very interesting point, especially the alignments between the metrics and the ultimate outcomes, you want to have. Let me ask you to take that question into your office, what performance metrics do you use within the office to determine if the goals are being met?

Ms. Nelson: Well, we are meeting with the Office of Environmental Information's board of directors to adopt for the very first time a balanced scorecard. When I came onboard at EPA, it was less than two years old, and we really didn't have as an organization good metrics in place. We received, interestingly enough an internal grant from our Chief Financial Officer to put performance metrics system in place for the office environmental information, we're doing that starting October 1st, which is the start of the fiscal year and we're trying for the first time a balanced scorecard. So I'm sure we won't get it 100% right but it will be a learning experience.

Mr. Lawrence: Interesting, you will have to come back and tell us how it turned out. EPA is involved in many of the e-gov initiatives, how are they doing and what have been the lessons learnd, we'll ask Kim Nelson of the EPA to give us certain thoughts when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour, I'm Paul Lawrence. This morning's conversation is with Kim Nelson. Kim is the Assistant Administrator and Chief Information Officer of the Environmental Protection Agency, joining us in our conversation is Dave Abel.

Mr. Abel: Kim, the EPA is involved in 14 of the 25 e-government initiatives that are currently underway. Can you tell us a little bit about some of these initiatives?

Ms. Nelson: The e-government work is very exciting, you know, people said to me when I came to Washington, we talked a little bit about this earlier actually, how difficult it is to make a difference in a short period of time. Well, when I would look back and realize that this e-gov initiatives have only been underway for less than 3 years. I think it's phenomenal when we look at the progress. The e-gov initiatives are part of the President's Management Agenda. It's his desire, his vision to make sure that government is citizen centric, that government is result oriented and that we use market based solutions and that's what you're seeing in the e-gov initiatives. We're involved, as you said in 14 of them. That clearly keeps us busy because we're a much smaller agency than many of the big departments but so many of these are fundamental to how we work.

One of them that are very important to us is the e-authentication project. It's really what the federal government is trying to do to ensure that we can establish identity, authenticate users to ensure the proper transmission of electronic documents with electronic signatures. Our role, I think, in this is very exciting. We were recently given a grant and here's another way that government is being very innovative we got a grant from this project for $700,000 for EPA to be able to demonstrate the interoperability of digital certificates between state governments and the Federal government. So, we're demonstrating through all the work we've done with our state partners in CDX, how you can take a certificate that a facility has and using in State government and use that to authenticate a submission to the Federal government and vice versa.

Likewise, another project we're working on, which I -- would be remised if I didn't mention is the rule making initiative. Rulemaking.gov, EPA is the lead partner on that initiative, which means we're managing that with many other agencies as co-partners but we are the managing partner of that initiative and through that website "rulemaking.gov," citizens can go one place, for the first time ever one place and put in any kind of key word. If you're a farmer and you're interested in agriculture, if you're a teacher and you're interested in some education issues, if you're interested in environment, something like mercury, you can type in one key word and find every Federal agency that has some kind of rule making or policy open for public comment.

Mr. Abel: So, EPA is a participant in the e-rule making program with e-government, overall you are one of multiple participants?

Ms. Nelson: We're one of many participants in rule making but we are a managing partner. So it's my office that has the overall responsibility for managing that initiative. Each one of these projects has a managing partner and we have the responsibility for rule making and that's primarily due to, of course EPA being a regulatory agency, rule making is the large part of our business. If you look at the lines of business within EPA, we issue a lot of rules, much to the dismay of some people but that's the nature of our business and as a result of that OMB felt we had a tremendous amount of expertise to manage this project, on top of the fact that we already had an electronic docket system in place that is serving as the basis or the core for rulemaking.gov.

That's the other great part about these e-gov initiatives is that throughout the federal government we're taking good ideas that already existed in one department and expanding those to many, many other agencies. So, we are reducing duplication, we were reducing redundant expenditures and we were taking a good idea and we're expanding it.

Mr. Abel: So, what are some of the management challenges that you faced in the implementation of these programs?

Ms. Nelson: The biggest challenge is that we're operating in a very innovative way. We are bringing partners together and working on common solutions and we are doing really terrific things in a way the Federal government never behaved before but we still haven't managed to get all the processes and the bureaucracy to catch up with that innovation and it makes it very difficult sometimes to do the very basic things we have to do, like move money around. Because when you have an initiative that involves 20 partners, that means 20 different agencies have to pay for that project.

Well, getting the money from 20 different agencies all at the right time, getting 20 different agencies to participate in a decision is not always the easiest thing to do. So, the governance side of the house hasn't quite caught up with the technology and the innovative thinking but it's not holding the projects up, it just means it's making a little bit more of achallenge to manage it.

Mr. Abel: Have there been any early successes?

Ms. Nelson: Oh, I think many of the e-gov projects could be called early successes. FirstGov for instance recently won a very prestigious award for being so citizen centric and has received tremendous number of awards. Rule making is a wonderful success; the business gateway is now up. If you're a small business owner and you haven't been there, you need to go to the business gateway.gov site. Because if you are a small business owner you can go to one place now and find what you need to do from an environmental prospective, or a labor prospective, an IRS prospective, and get all of that in one place. So these are the kinds of services that are being put in place for citizens across the country.

Mr. Abel: Can you describe the significant challenges that the EPA will face in the future?

Ms. Nelson: EPA's challenges for the future are the fact that in many respects we've managed to do the easy things. It's the 80/20 rule. If you look across the country, rivers that used to be black and polluted and burning are no longer there. I come from the state of Pennsylvania, if you think of what Pittsburgh looked like 30-40 years ago, where a man going to work in the morning with a white shirt had to change his shirt in mid-day because the air was so polluted. We don't have that problem in the United States anymore. We've made huge environmental progress.

The challenge we have in the future is that, in order to make the next incremental change improvement in the environment, it means it's going to involve every single person in this country. We made this huge environmental changes in the past by driving hard largely on industry, cleaning smokestacks, cleaning up industry but the biggest polluters today are you and me. It's the car we drive, it's the lawn mower we use, it's the gas grill we use, it's the fire places we burn in the winter time, it's our life-style that has the biggest impact on the environment today and that's hard for people to accept. It's easy for them to say, take care of that factory down the road that's spewing dirt out of its smokestack.

It's another thing to say to somebody, you know you should be driving a different car, you shouldn't be using your lawn mower, you shouldn't be using your grill. That changes your lifestyle and people don't like that. But we all have to look internally and make our own changes to our own lifestyle because if we do that, we can make a big difference. One thing I would encourage everybody to do, if you don't have fluorescent light bulbs in your home, put 1, 2, 3, 4 fluorescent light bulbs in your home, if you do that, if every single person in this country put a handful of fluorescent light bulbs in your home, we could reduce the number of power plants being built in this country and nobody wants a power plant built in their backyard. And if we reduce the number of power plants, we can reduce the air emissions, which dramatically improve air quality. So, doing simple things like that, like putting in a fluorescent light bulb in one room, one bulb in each room of your house, can improve the environment.

Mr. Lawrence: Let me ask you to take a step back and reflect on your careers. You think about maybe somebody interested in joining public service, what advice would give them?

Ms. Nelson: Well, for me -- you know I only have one prospective, I've only ever worked in government, it's certainly incredibly rewarding, the ability to impact public policy, the ability to make a difference in terms of how government serves citizens. It's something that's so incredibly rewarding. I would encourage people to try sometime in public service if you're currently working in the private sector. I would love to see the kind of work environment where people who are currently working in government could go also out into the private sector and spend some time in business because I think walking in another person's shoes ultimately always makes for a better person.

Unfortunately, we don't always have that flexibility and it would be great if the Federal government -- and they're looking at that, looking at ways to make it easier for people to move in and move out, even if it's for six months, a year or two years to gain some experience. So, I would encourage people to be as well rounded as possible. I regret I don't have the business experience. I tried to spend more time with people in the private sector to understand their needs and concerns. In the future I think we all will be better served if we could do that.

Mr. Lawrence: Kim, that'll have to be our last question. We're running out of time. Dave and I want to thank you for squeezing us in your very busy schedule.

Ms. Nelson: Well, thank you very much Paul and one final note. I just want to say October mark's Children's Health month. Children from the Environmental Protection Agency's prospective, are one of the most important parts of our population--they are our future. We recognize that as we look to the environment, we need to protect our children, they're our future.

With children's health month, I encourage every parent, every teacher and every child out there to better understand what the environment means to a growing child. So go to EPA's website www.epa.gov and look for children's health and you'll see it right upfront and you got lots of great information about how you can help protect the children of the country.

Mr. Lawrence: Thank you Kim. This has been The Business of Government Hour featuring conversation with Kim Nelson, Assistant Administrator and Chief Information Officer of the Environmental Protection Agency. Be sure and visit us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. There you can learn more about our programs and research and get a transcript of today's fascinating conversation. Once again it's businessofgovernment.org.

This is Paul Lawrence, thank you for listening.

Kimberly Nelson interview
10/23/2004
"The EPA is collecting the information we need to understand the condition of the environment. It’s important to have the right information to make sure tax dollars are being spent wisely and for management purposes."

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