Blueprint in the works to erase government walls

The emerging customer-oriented approach to e-government has given new impetus

to a 2-year-old federally funded project designed to improve information

sharing across federal, state and local government boundaries.

The initiative, funded by the U.S. Office of Justice Programs and managed

by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (formerly

the National Association of State Information Resource Executives), began

as an effort to make it easier for law enforcement agencies at all levels

of government to exchange data electronically.

But the pressure to give the public easy access to information and services

across government boundaries is pushing other agencies to share information

as well.

So NASCIO is taking a step back and focusing on the design of the underlying

networks that make information sharing possible. The state organization

recently took bids to develop a template that agencies might use in designing

their networks and systems.

The template essentially should incorporate the design principles and

technical standards "that you ignore at your peril if you want to be effective

at digital government or the national sharing of information," said Gerry

Wethington, chairman of NASCIO's information architecture committee and

chief information officer of Missouri.

NASCIO officials describe the template as an adaptive enterprisewide

architecture. An information technology architecture is like a blueprint

for developing an organization's IT backbone. The template, then, is a blueprint

for developing blueprints. "Adaptive" is key because the template must be

able to support a wide variety of applications, and it must be applicable

as technology changes.

The template will not define the inner workings of networks and systems

that agencies build. Rather, it will focus on how those systems integrate

with others. Ideally, if governments develop their networks and systems

using the same template, they will have an easier time making their systems

work together, Wethington said.

No agency will be required to use the template, but NASCIO believes

e-government provides a compelling incentive, particularly because of the

latest efforts to design customer-friendly Web portals.

Customer-friendly means organizing a Web site based on how people look

for services, rather than on which agencies are delivering those services.

The integration of information and services at the design level requires

integrating information from different government systems behind the screen.

That's why architecture is so important, said Bob Greeves, a policy adviser

and independent consultant working with the Office of Justice Programs.

Like the blueprint for a building, "you want somebody to lay down all

the different pieces so you can make it mesh," Greeves said. "This is going

to be the framework for allowing water to flow through the pipes and electricity

to flow through the lines."

The Justice program, now a subset of the architecture project, will

be the first test case for translating information architectures into actual

data exchanges. But NASCIO plans to expand the project into other disciplines,

such as education, transportation and health and human services, Wethington

said.

In some cases, agencies will not want to share information because of

privacy concerns, said Carol Kelly, vice president and services director

for electronic government strategies at META Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn.,

consulting firm. But "you want to build that adaptability [into your architecture]

so that when you want to share information, you can," she said.

NASCIO plans to unveil the template at its conference in September.

But while NASCIO hopes to test the concept on a limited basis during

the next year, it will take many more years to bring it to fruition because

of its complexity, Greeves said.

"We are making headway, but it's not going to be fully implemented nationwide

for decades, probably," he said. Still, "our motto is "progress is more

important than perfection.' "Finding common ground

The National Association of State Chief Information Officers asked bidders

to explain their proposals for an adaptive enterprisewide architecture in

several ways:

Detail the significance of technology architecture in a digital government

environment.

Present the business case for adopting architecture within government.

Use anecdotal stories where the value of architecture has been demonstrated.

Use parallel environments in the presentation of architecture — for

example, the standardization of railroad gauges that support cross-country

transportation.

Create a pictorial framework presenting the entire architectural

model.

Develop a lexicon of terms specific to the architecture.

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