Business of Government Stories
Thursday, March 19, 2020
The stories of FirstGov, the E-Government Strategy, and the E-Government Act of 2002 all stem from visions of the future and supportive implementing coalitions that paved the way for digital government transformations yet to come.

Vignette 1:  FirstGov (now USA.Gov). In 1999, Eric Brewer -- Internet search pioneer and CEO of the search company Inktomi (which developed search long before Google) met President Clinton at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.  Brewer had what was a revolutionary idea at the time – organize all government information in a single search engine, accessible through a single portal, for free.

At the time, Federal agencies had developed some 30 million web pages, but access was through a myriad of agency-specific interfaces that lacked a connection point to search information across the government.  With the search industry taking off as the internet developed through the 1990s (see John Kamensky’s last post for this story), search was becoming a new means of access to information across the economy – but government was behind the curve.

The President put Brewer in touch with Dave Barram, Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) and a former California tech company executive, who reviewed the offer with his team and with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR).  Brewer’s free offer was quickly deemed unacceptable as a gift to the government, but the power of the idea led GSA to develop a $1 contract for the search engine and a separate vehicle for the services that were involved.

At the same time, GSA had been working on an idea for a single portal to the government, which it referred to as “” – led out of the Office of Governmentwide Policy (OGP) by staffers Tom Freebairn and Bob Maslyn, under the leadership of OGP Administrator (and later IBM Center Fellow) Marty Wagner.  Barram, OMB Deputy Director for Management (DDM) Sally Katzen, and NPR Director Morley Winograd quickly agreed that the two ideas could be married into a single initiative, called First Gov, and hired a program manager with success as a government change agent named Deborah Diaz to lead the effort.

The team recognized that a vision of the future like FirstGov would require both support and resources from across the government, and thus needed a senior-level governance council to drive change and build buy-in from agencies who were understandably concerned about new search engines accessing their data.  This led Katzen, who as DDM also Chaired the President’s Management Council (PMC) and the Chief Information Officers’ (CIO) Council, to work with Barram and Winograd in creating a “Board of Directors” led by several key PMC members with support from their CIOs.  I worked with Wagner and GSA Chief Information Officer Bill Piatt to help with funding and coordination, while Diaz led the implementation team.

After several months of development and testing, went live in September of 2000 with support from President Clinton and Vice-President Gore.  The launch was not without drama -- the weekend before go-live a coding error necessitated correction by an Inktomi programmer who was called back from a mountain hiking trip!  But on that day over 20 years ago, the US government moved fully into the Internet era, thanks to the power of an idea and a collaborative program management and governance structure.


What search engine preceded Google in government? - Dan Chenok explains!





Vignette 2:  Project Quicksilver. The turn of the Millennium in 2000 (stay tuned for the Y2K story next week from guest blogger John Koskinen) was followed by the arrival of President George W. Bush.  Bush had an “e-government” plank to his policy agenda, and OMB made E-Government one of the five cornerstones of the first President’s Management Agenda in 2001 (described in more detail here).  Interestingly, one of the first IT decisions of the new Administration was to relaunch FirstGov, based on the great work by GSA.

To lead the E-Government agenda, OMB established a dedicated political appointee position as the “Associate Director for E-Government and IT” shortly after President George W. Bush took office in 2001, and named industry executive and former Senate Governmental Affairs Committee staffer Mark Forman as the head of this office.  This position was created in part as a result of advocacy from industry and bi-partisan members of Congress (led by Reps. Steven Horn and Tom Davis and Sen. Joe Lieberman), who were pushing for a Federal CIO in OMB to help government improve its purchase and use of technology, to address security issues , and better leverage the web to serve citizens.

Forman drove a three-part transformation strategy, beginning with “Project Quicksilver.”  Through this initiative, OMB worked with the PMC  and CIO Council (as had been done for FirstGov) to build on an E-Gov Strategy Study. This resulted from OMB Director Mitch Daniels approving Forman’s plan to develop a Federal IT strategy with taskings to agencies that would apply a method widely used by industry and government based on best practices as outlined in a book called Unleashing the Killer App.

Through this process, OMB, led by a team of detailees from the agencies who conducted government interviews and public outreach efforts, solicited ideas for improved service to all constituencies—from small businesses to grant recipients to national park visitors. The team developed more than 50 candidate projects, from which the PMC selected 25 cross-agency initiatives based on business cases that showed the greatest potential to improved service to four portfolio groups: citizens, businesses, state and local governments, and government employees. 

Each project was led by interagency teams, driven by a lead agency and involved multiple partners.  This team leveraged digital technology and related processes to develop public-facing, user-friendly websites or consolidated systems that improved access to and service from agencies.  Many of the initial E-Gov websites remain in operation today as models of digital government, ranging from Regulations.Gov (the subject of a 2013 Center report by Cynthia Farina, to IRS E-File (the subject of a 2006 Center report).

The second element of Foreman’s transformation strategy, in addition to Project Quicksilver’s 25 initiatives, was the development of a Federal Enterprise Architecture and the creation of a new position of Chief Architect, a post first held by former US Postal Service Executive Norm Lorentz.  The third element of the transformation strategy was the creation of shared services for lines of business common across agencies, the original set of which included financial management, human resources, and grants management, soon followed by cybersecurity – all four remain part of the shared services landscape today, now led by Quality Services Management Offices.

The Information Policy and Technology Branch out of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs worked closely with the new E-Gov office to implement this strategy, operating as a unified staff in which I served as a Deputy to Forman.  This initiative helped shift OMB’s role in Federal IT from one largely focused on policy and general oversight to one that also drove specific government-wide initiatives designed to gain effectiveness with a focus on citizen services, and gain efficiencies by reducing duplicative systems – a role that continues today.

Ultimately, the strategy first inspired and led by Forman, and implemented through a robust cross-agency governance mechanism, set a path for transformation initiatives that has great relevance to the digital transformations of today -- helping government to leverage emerging technologies in becoming a more “cognitive enterprise.”

Vignette 3:  The E-Government Act of 2002.  As the E-Gov Strategy was moving forward, Congress introduced bipartisan legislation to authorize an enhanced OMB oversight role in IT.  Sen. Lieberman and Sen. Fred Thompson reintroduced a bill to establish a “Federal CIO” in OMB, reflecting the prior congressional support for this role as discussed above. OMB leadership supported a process of negotiation with the Senate to produce a bill that the Administration could support.  As the senior career IT official at OMB, I was assigned the role of “lead negotiator” for the Administration; other core participants were Government Accountability Office IT leader Dave McClure, Thompson staffer Robert Shea, and Lieberman’s staff counsel Kevin Landy.

Landy set the agenda for the overall process, and over the course of roughly nine months in a small Senate meeting room, the teams worked through many issues raised by agencies to resolve key points in the bill, described below.  A final issue was the position of the OMB IT leader – congressional staffers wanted a Senate-confirmed position called a Federal CIO.  OMB Director Mitch Daniels argued against the title, continuing what was then a long-held OMB view based on the Clinger Cohen Act (see more on Clinger Cohen here) that the DDM should carry that title – a view that changed in the last Administration, which adopted the title of Federal CIO that continues today, even given the E-Gov Act title of “Administrator” as discussed below.  The Director also did not want to increase the number of Senate-confirmed positions at OMB.

The issue was resolved – in a classic DC style – at a Mexican restaurant, over margaritas, where we settled on a compromise:  the head of the new E-Gov office would serve as “Administrator for E-Government and Information Technology.”  This made the role equivalent in title and stature to the heads of OMB’s other statutory management offices, but as a presidential appointee who did not need Senate confirmation.  The confirmation issue ultimately became the deciding factor that enabled the bill to pass the Senate.

Of course, the bill had to be passed by the House as well.  Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA) had successfully moved two separate bills forward that were related to E-Gov:  the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA – still the law of the government cyber land today) and a set of procurement reform initiatives.  With Davis’ support and these provisions added, the bill became a vehicle that moved quickly in the fall of 2002.  Its momentum also led to the inclusion of a separate statistical confidentiality law that also remains in effect today (the Confidential Information Protection and Statistics Efficiency Act).

As enacted, the E-Government Act of 2002 created authorities for the new government IT leader, a role that Mark Forman filled initially and was followed by Karen Evans; codified many of the policies and initiatives of the new E-Gov strategy; and expanded the scope for OMB IT and information policy oversight activities. Other provisions enhanced agency responsibilities and OMB authorities in numerous related areas, such as privacy, records management, and citizen services. Finally, the Act authorized a fund for E-Government initiatives, which was administered by GSA and built on previous funding mechanisms that had provided OMB with authority to direct spending on innovation.  This fund has served as a model for similar cross-agency technology funds today.

As with the prior vignettes, the E-Gov Act story shows lessons learned for today’s leaders:  how a careful and collaborative process that brings views together around key ideas can lead to legislation and initiatives that move government IT forward.

Business of Government Stories

The past 30 years provides important lessons both for today’s leaders and for those of future administrations. Little has been written about the role leaders and teams have played in the evolution of management reforms. We are starting a series called “Business of Government Stories” where we will narrate the stories of many of the most influential events that have shaped government over the past generation. Our series will focus on the people behind this management evolution and feature a podcast with reflections on the stories behind these reforms.

Learn more about our stories and read previous posts.