Out of bounds
- By Brian Robinson
- Sep 03, 2001
Up until last year, when federal, state and local chief information officers
got together at the annual meeting for the National Association of State
Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), the idea of Government Without Boundaries
was an obvious goal but in an intangible, somewhere-down-the-road way.
Creating a virtual pool of online information and services for all three
levels of government had been an obvious goal ever since the World Wide
Web solidified into a fact of modern life, but another fact of life was
that other things always seemed to get in the way of doing something about
it.If it wasn't the Year 2000 problem, then it was the time each executive
was putting into his or her own government's efforts to develop Web-based
services. The will was there, but getting together enough warm bodies proved
Then, last year, it just seemed the right time.
"I have personally been interested in this for a long time," said Wendy
Rayner, New Jersey's CIO and one of the main instigators of the Government
Without Boundaries program. "We were all as busy as ever, but we realized
that, if it was ever to be, something had to happen. We had to find a catalyst."
That came from the federal General Services Administration's Office
of Intergovernmental Solutions (OIS). The office agreed to take on the task
of coordinating the program and organizing the collaboration and planning
among a range of governmental organizations.
The result could be that, in just a few years, anyone who wants to know
anything about government or a government service any government service
could simply click a subject button on his or her state or local Web site.
Any information needed about that and related subjects would be made available
in a neat package of material.
GSA, working with state and local governments in two states, has begun
a pilot program of the concept with a portal for parks and recreation information.
More pilot programs could soon follow.
The program's benefits for government are more difficult to decipher.
Allowing a seamless form of e-procurement across all three levels of government
is one possible outcome, for example, but it's unclear how this kind of
virtual linkup could manage that.
Nevertheless, because many of the programs state and local governments
have to implement begin life at the federal level, handed down as mandates,
the opportunity for closer working relationships among the governments is
reason enough for Government Without Boundaries. "As it is now, the federal
government talks to the state government about these matters, and then the
state talks to us at the local level," said David Molchany, CIO for Fairfax
County in Virginia. "If we could all be at the same table to begin with,
then local government would have much better input into these programs.
And that's desirable, given that we are the ones who are ultimately responsible
for delivering the services these programs require."
However, it took some time to figure out what to do with Government
Without Boundaries, said Martha Dorris, OIS deputy director. The first ideas
were vague, though they decided to take an "easy as it goes" approach and
start off with just a few participants and pilot projects. They would then
identify the lessons learned and potential problem areas before expanding
That's proved to be a prudent approach, because they've already learned
enough to change the program's direction from using both youth services
and parks for the initial pilot projects to just focusing on parks, Dorris
"We decided to go this way because park services [are] an area of maturity
at all levels of government" and already have an extensive presence on government
Web sites, Dorris said. "We wanted to do something that will have an immediate
impact [with governments], and parks consistently [show] up as the No. 1
or No. 2 priority in citizen response" to surveys of government Web site
It will also help to draw other people into Government Without Boundaries
in the future, said John Clark, the project's director at GSA. Government
Without Boundaries is a self-funded project, and, if people are required
to put money in to be a participant, it's more attractive to them if they
know they can get some money back.
Parks are at the center of many government tourism and recreation services,
he pointed out, and anything that helps bring more people into parks puts
dollars into the community.
"To that extent," Clark said, "having parks as the first channel of
service for Government Without Boundaries is an incentive for people to
New Jersey and Virginia officials, together with county and municipal
governments in those states, have taken the lead on the parks pilot projects.
New Jersey officials are developing an online demonstration program that
will link information on events at local, state and federal parks throughout
Virginia leaders are tackling the development of a taxonomy, or subject
tree, that will provide a kind of card catalog of tagged information that
will allow government Webmasters to integrate links for Web pages from other
governments and agencies into their own sites.
Illinois and Maryland officials have also committed to Government Without
Boundaries, though so far they have not defined what their pilot projects
will be. Federal government participants, apart from GSA, include the
Social Security Administration, the Interior and Treasury departments, and
the Simplified Tax and Wage Reporting System Program, a multi.agency initiative.
The New Jersey project is not that technically challenging, Rayner said,
because it's basically meant to show the feasibility of using HTML links
to provide an integrated calendar of events. The state calendar was already
in place, so it's more a matter of bringing in those other links and making
the calendar that results as user-friendly as possible.
The Virginia pilot project is more complex, because the taxonomy and indexed
list of information have to be created. But those tasks are not technically
challenging, said Bette Dillehay, Virginia's deputy secretary of technology.
The main questions will center on policy, and how to get state agencies
to provide full access to the kinds of information needed.
The result of Virginia's pilot project, however, will be worth any of
the hassles because the process will allow Webmasters at any level of government
to automatically attach indexed information to their own sites. At the local
level, Webmasters could reach out beyond the government sites to include
information from other community Web resources.
The taxonomy works by using metatags. These tags serve as pointers to
other tags, making it possible to group information so it's easier to search.
It's as if you were to take a very detailed index of a book and create a
higher-level index, so readers could pick out which general categories to
sort through for the information they want, rather than thumbing through
the whole index.
Although the first demonstration will be for parks information, the
process could be used for any information that can be indexed this way.
"Virginia is basing much of its approach to online services around the
concepts of e-government and communities," Dillehay said. "Since this process
is ultimately portable and scalable, it can be used by any community regardless
of the buy-in by the state or other sectors of government. At the local
level, it will be a very powerful tool."
Other elements that will have to be developed in order for Government
Without Boundaries to progress are interoperability standards and a description
of the architecture that will best suit this vision of seamless government.
Organizers have only just started with those, said James Mackison, a policy
analyst at OIS.
"We are trying to get people on board now who can help with this," he
The participants acknowledge that getting people at all levels of government
involved in Government Without Boundaries may take time and that cultural
issues could prove more of a problem than technical barriers. But they realize
that tangible progress needs to be shown if it's to be sold as a project
New Jersey expected to have a version of its expanded events calendar
online in August, while Virginia officials hope that this month they will
have a model of its indexing process that can be implemented and replicated
for use at different levels of government.
OIS also hopes to have a rough draft of the government architecture
available in the fall for comments by state and local governments, Dorris
said. The first phase of the Government Without Borders project should end
in December, with publication of the first "Lessons Learned" report.
Progress after that depends on just what these lessons are, what other
services participants choose to develop and what other states and local
governments opt to join the effort. But 2003 is the tentative target for
the final phase of Government Without Boundaries whatever that may be
to be declared successfully accomplished.
And that should be fine, believes Elizabeth Miller, the executive director
"With any project, people always want it to go faster," she said, "but
good progress has been made. We hope more people will be drawn into the
project as more services, such as health care, are involved, and accomplishing
that will be a challenge because everyone has different targets for the
services they want to focus on."
"But it doesn't lack for enthusiasm, and that's the best thing," Miller
said. "As long as they come up with a clear, consistent set of guidelines,
I think it's something people will buy in to."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached