Intergovernmental Service Protocols

Despite its harm to individual computer systems, the Year 2000 date-change crisis could reveal some even uglier side effects in the interfaces between systems -- that is, in the networks ferrying program data to and from local, county, state and federal government agencies.

The problem, of course, is that bad code in one agency could infect data meant to satisfy program requirements elsewhere. In an era of flatter, networked government, this has the potential to wreak havoc, especially in the big, federated areas of law enforcement, child-support enforcement, welfare and even electronic commerce.

The number of mysterious and even dangerous permutations of such a virus are almost endless: pensions and benefits could be cut off (or extended), felons not-ready-for-prime-time could be released, true deadlines for decommissioning hazardous materials could be missed. At the very least, state and local governments' hard-earned momentum in service improvements could be slowed.

Fortunately, some movers and shakers in the state and local IT community have started to address this problem. In a late October meeting in Pittsburgh, officials sketched out protocols for developing Year 2000 interfaces in several areas, including inventory and compliance, mutual certification and testing, and building electronic bridges. In essence, these were agreements on how best to conduct complex, multilateral operations to minimize the Year 2000 data-sharing problem. An example: If one party in a data-transfer operation fails to be code-compliant by a mutual drop-dead date, that party should provide an electronic bridge or workaround to accommodate the unfixed data.

It seems to me that these protocols might serve as a model for protecting service integrity in other areas where complex government partnerships are now forming -- namely, in the areas of welfare and child support. Certainly California's troubled Statewide Automated Child Support System could have benefited from more vigorous protocols governing how the state, counties and private-sector partners there should develop and then manage and track case files across that complex network.

One noteworthy aspect of the Pittsburgh conference was that it was driven by the program middlemen -- executives at the state level who sit between their federal and local government counterparts in the service-delivery network. That is as it should be, for states are the most vulnerable to less-than-full cooperation on Year 2000 interfaces from federal and local government agencies.

The jury is still out on the federal government's top-down approach to developing protocols for the nation's new welfare services delivery network. But should that effort falter, it may be wise for federal welfare program officials to turn the job over to the states, where intergovernmental cooperation is increasingly becoming a fact of life.

Paul McCloskey



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