Misnomer of the week: E‑gov = shutting down old systems

Wyatt Kash at GCN has a message for OMB: by shutting down legacy e‑gov systems, “the administration can strengthen its case for cross-agency funding of these, and future, e‑government projects.”

Grants.gov is perhaps the best example of an e‑government initiative that has proved the benefits of crafting a chaotic array of systems into a single, efficient and effective service.

Still, OMB’s measure-of-success goals for 2007 appear to soft-pedal one important measure: Defining when many of those duplicate legacy systems, which the e‑government projects were designed to improve on or replace, will actually be shut down.

He’s right, of course. The e‑gov projects were intended to replace a smörgåsbord of duplicative systems which, it was promised, could be shut down once these shiny new products were mature. And in citing Grants.gov, he’s also right that it has implemented a good majority of the common functionality of many of these legacy systems. But the devil’s in the details.

Many agencies can’t shut down their grant application gateways because Grants.gov doesn’t cater to their specific, legislatively-mandated requirements. For example, some agencies have extensive pre-application processes that feed data into grantee applications. Grants.gov doesn’t meet this need. So it’s easy to say “Shut down that old system!” but that doesn’t consider the fact that those systems were custom-built to service needs that Grants.gov was never designed to meet.

So ultimately, and in the case of Grants.gov at least, Kash is mistaken. What’s needed is not elimination of these older systems but reengineering of the businesses processes that they serve (to utilize Grants.gov and benefit from its implementation of government-wide functionality), and development of agency-specific systems that fill in the gaps between Grants.gov and legislative mandates that agencies must meet to stay legal.

None of this is to say that Grants.gov should go away; quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, the message should not be about systems but about building government organizations and business processes that can utilize common systems while meeting their missions. It’s a “service-oriented architecture” for business, really — use what you can that already exists but develop what you need that’s specific to you — and Grants.gov is now a fundamental part of that architecture for federal grants management.