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Bush signs e-government bill

The E-Government Act of 2002 is intended to make federal information systems communicate more fluently with one other, with government workers and with the general public.

President Bush signed a bill Tuesday intended to make federal information systems communicate more fluently with one other, with government workers and with the general public.

In a statement, Bush said the new law will put legislative teeth into goals he set over the summer for more Internet-friendly government services.

"The act will...assist in expanding the use of the Internet and computer resources in order to deliver government services, consistent with the reform principles I outlined on July 10, 2002, for a citizen-centered, results-oriented and market-based government," Bush said.

Specifically, the E-Government Act of 2002 establishes within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) an Office of Information, which will be run by a federal chief information officer responsible for coordinating the government's electronic information resources.

The bill earmarks $45 million for the initiative in 2003, rising to $150 million in 2006.

Following intelligence failures associated with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the inability of some intelligence and law enforcement agencies and their computer systems to communicate with one other has fallen under congressional scrutiny. While proponents say the e-government bill came about independently from those intelligence pressures, the graphic illustration of those communication failures may have spurred its passage into law.

"It's more coincidence than anything else, but it was an example that was easier for many lawmakers to understand," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association Of America (ITAA), an Arlingon, Va.-based trade association that lobbied for the bill's passage. The Sept. 11 terror attacks and "recent reports about the existence of different islands of information within the government creates a more sympathetic ear among lawmakers."

In addition to the IT office at the OMB, the law establishes a Chief Information Officers Council to improve interagency information sharing. Within the Treasury Department, the law establishes an E-Government Fund to pay for interagency IT work.

The law will also require federal agencies to follow the new CIO's directives and standards and to create compatible Internet-based delivery systems for government information and services. Publications mandated by the law include an online federal telephone directory, an online National Library, Web sites for individual federal courts, an online agency directory, and a site for regulatory proceedings and electronic rulemakings dockets.

The goal of making the government's various databases communicate more fluidly, therefore greasing the wheels of law enforcement and intelligence gathering, is the type of scenario that usually makes privacy advocates nervous. But the bill won support from some privacy advocates who liked its requirements that government information agencies publicly assess the effect on privacy before collecting personally identifiable information from individuals.

"The assessments will raise the level of attention to privacy issues within federal agencies, at the most critical stage: before new technology is purchased or new collections of data are initiated," wrote the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) last month in a note on the pending bill. "The assessments will bring greater transparency to the IT development and procurement process, allowing Congress, citizens and advocacy groups to better scrutinize the privacy decisions of the government."

The ITAA's Harris lauded the new law as a move forward for a government that is often at technological odds with itself.

"This is the president saying: E-government is here to stay and this is how government will be delivered to the citizens in the future," said Harris. "We want to get to a point where e-government means government, and there's no distinction. One day we won't need to put the 'e' in front of it anymore."

News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.